With another year of Pop Gazing in the bag, I want to quickly thank the readers and my editors for joining me this year in my endless fascination with the music echoing off stadium walls and the dusty pockets of the internet. As always, I hope this column has led you to songs and musicians you’ve enjoyed and will continue to relish as we step into the new year. Now, as we finish sweeping up New Year’s confetti and storing our “2020” novelty glasses, I’m taking one last look back at my favorite songs from 2019. (And here’s 2018 if you missed it.)
20. Georgia: “About Work the Dancefloor”
This MP3 blog-flavored party starter was one of my favorite straight-ahead dance tracks of the year, narrowly beating out Peggy Gou’s “Starry Night” for the honor.
19. Anna Meredith: “Sawbones”
British composer Anna Meredith followed her 2018 Eighth Grade soundtrack with Fibs, a deliriously compelling album that makes me want to join a concert band each time I hear it. “Sawbones” is my favorite piece from Anna since her 2012 name-making “Nautilus.”
18. Jai Paul: “He”
When Jai Paul officially released his 2013 leaked “debut” this year, he did so along with a pair of un-leaked songs crafted in the same sessions. My favorite of these two late additions is “He.” It‘s a song which slowly and beautifully builds over 5½ minutes — and 5½ years, depending on how you look at it.
17. black midi: “Ducter”
The rock ‘n’ roll talk of the town, black midi stretched genres and runtimes in 2019. They also exceeded my expectations: after being picked up and spat out by the ever-ruthless hype machine, the band emerged from their buzzy entrance unshaken and stronger than before. black midi’s debut album holds up not due to the strength of their premise (dark, fractured rock music by British teens), but regardless of it. As is the case with 100 gecs, it feels more incidental than apropos that a group making great art from such disparate and unholy influences would be a full generation removed from their spiritual predecessors.
16. Vagabon: “Flood”
“Flood” ushered in a new chapter for songwriter/producer Lætitia Tamko, accompanied by a label change (to Nonesuch) and a more steely production style. Along with a few others on this list (and Holly Herndon’s “Eternal,” which barely missed the cut), “Flood” encapsulated something of a microtrend I fell hard for this year: sweeping, solitary electronic ballads.
15. Cate Le Bon: “Daylight Matters”
The saxophone on “Daylight Matters” sits askew among my favorite melodies of the year. This is a lackadaisical banger.
14. Rapsody (feat. D’Angelo and GZA): “Ibtihaj”
One of my favorite musical moments from 2019 was getting smacked in the face with this song when it leapt off a playlist at my girlfriend’s apartment one summer morning. “Wait, is that D’Angelo? And the GZA?” For me the song was frankly also an extremely late introduction to Rapsody, whose Eve was one of my favorite rap records of the year.
13. Jessie Ware: “Adore You”
Seven years after Devotion, Jessie Ware is still giving us reasons to fall in love with her music and each other. Her single “Adore You” is something of a spiritual follow-up to Robyn’s 2018 output: burning, driving love electro.
12. Lana Del Rey: “The greatest”
A terrific song on a remarkable album, “The greatest” feels like a particularly Beatlesy Fiona Apple song. That’s probably a good indicator that even after months spent listening to this record, I’m still struggling to accept the fact that Lana could drop this fire. That said, there’s no debating that “The culture is lit and I had a ball / I guess that I’m burned out after all” beats Pitchfork’s fave track of 2018 at its own game in two lines.
11. Caroline Polachek: “Ocean of Tears”
Ever since her Pop 2 feature, I’ve been hoping with fingers crossed that Caroline Polachek’s post-Chairlift solo debut would be a jaw-dropper. And Pang delivered, particularly due to the strength of songs like “Ocean of Tears.” This is 2019’s requisite Danny L Harle-produced track on my year-end favorites list (here are its predecessors from 2016 and 2018). And that means you know some metallic madness is bound to follow a line like, “The only thing that’s separating you and me tonight / ah!, is an ocean of te-eee-eears.”
10. Bad Bunny (feat. El Alfa): “La Romana”
“Latin Sicko Mode,” observes one of the 60,000 YouTube commenters for this track. Indeed, this distinctly two-part banger is a highlight on one of the few indisputable albums of the year which we had every day of 2019. (There’s a special place in my heart for the bravest of the release dates: the days of each year after most major publications release their best-of lists.) Of course, either half of “La Romana” could stand alone — but in the context of the duo’s re-teaming, the Latin trap to Dembow flip at 2:25 is even sweeter.
9. FKA twigs: “sad day”
“sad day” is a tremendous and clear-eyed vision of pain and self-value told in the aftermath of a concluded relationship. As on much of her groundbreaking Magdalene, the subtext reflects the unique stress of navigating a breakup amongst levels of media scrutiny reserved for Batman-grade celebrity relationships. It’s a deeply personal story told in the storybook fashion of Kate Bush, flush with dancing soprano and emphatic drums.
8. Angel Olsen: “Lark”
The alighting of “Lark” was met with levels of word-of-mouth buzz I don’t often experience. “Have you heard the new Angel Olsen?” was a question less about a particular release as much it was about a new iteration of a previously familiar artist. The orchestration of All Mirrors and its production feel like outsized accomplishments even for such a highly regarded songwriter as Olsen.
7. Vampire Weekend: “Harmony Hall”
I remember feeling almost betrayed when Pitchfork awarded Vampire Weekend best album honors in 2013. At the time it felt like too safe and boring a choice to mean much of anything. Where was the justice for Government Plates? But times and fortunes have shifted, and Pitchfork’s now in my doghouse for underrating this year’s Father of the Bride. “Harmony Hall” was a standout single from this stilted collection of delicate arrangements which reasserted Ezra Koenig as one of the few frontmen from the bearded Brooklynite indie boom era to truly thrive in a crossover to extremely online pop.
6. Rosalía and J Balvin (feat. El Guincho): “Con Altura”
One of the year’s best (and biggest) turn-up songs was the reggaeton team-up “Con Altura,” a track that announced a new era of Rosalía’s career following her incredible 2018 breakthrough album El Mal Querer. She didn’t have to go this hard in 2019: Querer put her on a striking number of “Best of the Decade” lists considering its relatively localized impact upon release. But as her celebrity has grown, Rosalía has kept pace with high profile features and leading tracks. More than one billion YouTube plays later (on “Con Altura” alone!), she’s entering 2020 as a global star who’s liable to do basically whatever she wants for the next few years.
5. Charly Bliss: “Capacity”
The thing that gets me the most about “Capacity” is its nimble vocal melody. All the way through the second half of the verses to the bridge and then to the chorus, Eva Hendricks never rests as winds the curvy road through the song’s themes of avoiding entanglement in other people’s issues. She writes songs like a guitar solo. It’s not far from the home territory of a standard issue Charly Bliss song, but “Capacity” really nails the M.O. It’s a fitting metaphor-by-arrangement for the tricky nature of establishing boundaries while “being there” for a person.
4. 100 gecs: “money machine”
On 1000 gecs, this duo serves it all in 23 minutes: cacophony, sputtering piles of sounds, and somehow also a mind-numbing amount of hooky, silly, post-post-ironic pop moments. The best and perhaps most radio-ready of these is via “money machine,” a boast track with playground-grade sophistication. The song toes the rap-rock line while managing to focus its irony not on the delivery but rather its lyrics amongst the euphoria. Its taunt is too plugged in to the vibe to be menacing, and too chiseled into the band’s framework to mean anything.
3. Lil Nas X (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus, Young Thug and Mason Ramsey): “Old Town Road (Remix)”
Ultimately, 2019 didn’t only allow this song to be so big because of Lil Nas X’s ultrahuman efforts to make it so. “Old Town Road” became “Old Town Road” because it never stopped being a bop. This song will outlive you. It establishes, achieves, and kills its formula. It was lightning in a bottle of yee girl juice: there will never be another, partly because this song somehow still hasn’t had the last of its joy beaten out of it.
2. Sharon Van Etten: “Seventeen”
One in a lineage of incredible Sharon Van Etten songs, “Seventeen” delivers a fairly harrowing dose of reminiscence imbued with the wisdom of age. For a softie like me, the nostalgic focus can be a lot to handle — especially in the bridge as both Van Etten’s guitar and voice strain under the burden of hindsight’s clarity. Springsteen feels like a reference point, though perhaps so does “Springsteen.” For in-demand producer John Congleton, “Seventeen” was also a 2019 high water mark. Overdriven guitar swells and solos are pushed into the red to highlight Van Etten’s introspection framed as empathy for a former self. The song really is an accomplishment.
1. Weyes Blood: “Movies”
With no knock to visual or musical poetry, sometimes a song about movies is a song about movies. Such is the case on the six-minute centerpiece “Movies” which launches side B of Titanic Rising, unquestionably my favorite album of the year. This is probably the best place in this post to acknowledge that I had to disqualify repeat-act songs in order to keep other Weyes Blood songs from flooding this list. “Movies” takes a startlingly straight-forward thesis (“I love movies”) and places it in the ether, allowing the premise to unravel the pretense and metaphor around it.
Along the way, of course, songwriter Natalie Mering does introduce a number of ancillary themes as B-roll: obsession, indulgence, celebrity, longing. An arpeggiated synthesizer approximates slowly rolling 35mm film as we hear Weyes Blood approach movies (and yes, not “film” or “cinema”) from all directions: escapist, enabling, life-affirming. In the final chapter of the odyssey, a live string section breaks through, flipping the projection to full-speed. It’s one of the most ecstatic releases on the album or anywhere else in the past year.