Songs. There are a lot of good ones.
Last year, I gathered six tracks a week into a running playlist, and I had a blast doing it. Halfway through the year, I pruned those down to 100; last month I did the same with the second half of the year. (You can find those refurbished playlists here and here.)
But now it’s time to gather up the absolute best, and these, my friends, are those—with a couple disclaimers. First, I limited myself to one track per artist (though features and collaborations mean you might hear the same voice more than once). Also, let's be real: The rankings get pretty loose the further down you go. I wouldn’t get into a knife-fight over whether I truly believe #130 is better than number #139. For fun, I’ve also included (sometimes mildly tweaked versions of) what I said about my 25 absolute favorites earlier this year.
Now let’s get 2019 in the books so we can start scouting for some great 2020 tunes.
1. Ciara, “Thinkin Bout You”
The friskiest pop thirst-spree of 2019 peaked at a piddling #20 on the Billboard Hot 100, and we can never fully make amends. For four and a half minutes, Ciara allows us to experience all the giddy craving of possibly unrequited infatuation with none of the potentially heart-pulverizing real-world consequences. If we can't make this our new national anthem (can't we?), the least we should do is award Ciara the very first Nobel Prize for Horniness.
2. Ashley McBryde, “One Night Standards”
An instant country classic on lyrics alone: “How it goes is/Bar closes/There’s no king bed covered in roses/Just a room/Without a view/I don’t want a number you ain’t gonna answer/Let’s just stick to the one night standards.” But there are plenty of places a vocalist could take those lines, and to hear McBryde sing ’em, loveless sex may be an occasional necessity but there’s plenty of hurt in the hookup.
3. Pup, “Free at Last”
“Just ’cause you’re sad again/That doesn’t make you special at all” is targeted harassment and the mods have been notified.
4. Lana Del Rey, “The Greatest”
If the party’s really over this time, at least Lana’s here to deliver the ridiculous elegy our ridiculous culture deserves. She muses about the Beach Boys’ worst single and Kanye’s worst fashion decision, and voices the simplest, most aching regret we all share: “Miss doing nothing the most of all.” And unlike Father John Misty and probably 90 percent of your Twitter feed, she still cares enough about our silly species to regret the apocalypse rather than cheer it on, and that empathy is heartening.
5. Billie Eilish, “Bad Guy”
I’ll say it again: Duh.
6. Doja Cat (feat. Rico Nasty), “Tia Tamara”
Just a coupla cool chicks rapping about boobs.
7. Big Thief, “Not”
Unlike a lot of hacks, I prudently budget my use of “incantatory” for special circumstances like just this one. Each line of Adrianne Lenker’s lyrical silhouette demarcates what some mysterious entity is not, and her singing is at its rawest, especially when the guitar drops out at the close and her voice is left alone with the rhythm section. Play the long version, with the coda—Lenker’s guitar deserves it.
8. Noname, “Song 32”
This casually genius, free-associative Chicago rapper weaves contradictory yet complementary images of American affluence, violence, dominance, excellence, and race—”I'm Cardi's engagement ring," "I'm Obama pushing the button, in Libya, Pakistan," "I'm patriarchy on Sunday, don't push me, I'm Viacom"—into a seductive helix of metaphor that’s more than the sum of paradoxes. Whatever the next level is after “next level,” Noname’s floating high above it.
9. The Rails, “Call Me When It All Goes Wrong”
With the Rails already on their third album, it’s probably long past time to stop mentioning that Kami Thompson’s parents are folk-rock royals Richard and Linda T. But her intonation is so eerily and inescapably her dad’s, just as clipped and icy and ominous. The chary, put-upon bite of lines like “I’m a complex soul/Not a quick way out” sounds far more earned coming from a woman though. And that inheritance wouldn’t matter a jot if Thompson and husband James Walbourne didn’t write top-shelf folk-rock with the precision of power-pop.
10. Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road”
Maybe you think you’re had enough. Maybe you really even have had enough. All’s I know is that every time I think the novelty has finally worn off and I’ve ridden till I cain’t no more, those introductory chords send a jolt to my brain and quicken my pulse the way great pop always does and I’m back on that damn horse. Sure, he’s the first kid who truly gets how 21st-century pop stardom works, and he exposed the noxious racial politics of genre classification without even trying. But all tweets and thinkpieces and trolling aside, the reason you’ll be hearing this at every sporting event, wedding, and miscellaneous all-inclusive public occasion you attend in the indefinite future is simple: People love singing along with and dancing to this song.
11. Tierra Whack, “Only Child”
The first and best of this North Philly MC’s five excellent standalone singles this year is, at 3:59, more than one-quarter as long as the entirety of Whack World, her 2018 15-minute masterpiece of 15 one-minute tracks. But she’s just as witty and wily at this sprawling, epic length, easing into the groove to set you up for the multiple climactic dunks (”Used to arch my back for you and now I'm your arch-nemesis,” “I don't want to work it out, so cancel our gym membership”) before she closes by choosing “money ova dick.”
12. Valerie June, “Cosmic Dancer”
Over otherworldly acoustic strum and decorative piano, the Memphis blues-folk revisionist renders the T. Rex tune both earthier and spacier than the original. Smarter too.
13. KH, “Only Human”
Producer Kieran Hebden tinkers with a high-stepping U.K. garage beat so it doesn’t just build with a momentum that’s already made this track a dancefloor favorite, but also with a rhythmic logic shut-ins like me can hear and feel now that it’s streamable at home. When the vocal elements of Nelly Furtado’s 2006 song “Afraid” emerge, the chanted “You’re so afraid of what people might say/But that’s okay ’cause you’re only human” sounds less like a pop star’s inspirational patter and more like a throng of joyous townspeople flooding the street during a climactic production number. Need something to make you feel better? Hell, this might even make you feel good.
14. Lizzo, “Truth Hurts”
bUt iT CaMe oUt iN 2017
15. Chai, “I’m Me”
I’m too far removed from the culture this Japanese quartet is reportedly challenging (ironizing? deconstructing?) to (yet?) fully appreciate the subtleties of their acclaimed full-length, Punk. But when “I’m Me” injects its industrial-strength artificial sweeteners directly into my mainline, my brain’s pleasure sensors topple into the red in a way even the most glossily superficial U.S. pop hasn’t managed in years.
16. D’Angelo, “Unshaken”
And to think, there was a pre-”Old Town Road” moment when this spare, existentialist psalm from the Red Dead Redemption 2 soundtrack seemed almost certainly the biggest musical moment that video game would spawn in 2019. A showcase for the far-from-prolific neo-soul auteur’s grave lower register, the forlorn spiritual combines Old West frontier desolation with a touch of Leonard Cohen’s sepulchral stoicism. “May I stand unshaken,” D’Angelo prays. “Amid, amidst a crashing world.” Yee haw?
17. Frances Quinlan, “Rare Thing”
It’s disorienting to hear the Hop Along singer’s distinctive vocal style whoosh hither and yon over synths rather than guitars, like she performed in front of a green screen, then was superimposed over an incongrous landscape. The good kind of disorienting, I mean. That's partly because her idea of synthpop is as mutable and idiosyncratic as her idea of indie rock is.
18 Rosalia feat. J. Balvin, “Con Altura”
Even the most hapless gringo monoglot can hear how enjoyably the stars’ voices—flamenco-pop queen Rosalía’s nimble and fluty, neo-reggaeton chart titan Balvin’s gruff and bullish—ride that artfully overhauled boom-didi-boom-boom.
19. The Highwomen, “If She Ever Leaves Me”
As a country song about two women in love, this would be notable enough, but as a country song with a definitive Music Row lyrical twist as well, it stakes its claim to a musical tradition from within. Neat.
20. DaBaby, “Suge”
For all his credible threats (and actual instances) of bodily harm and clench-jawed diction, this North Carolinian is a surprisingly elastic rubber ball of a rapper. He doesn’t flow so much as poing, bounding as irresistibly as the squelchy synth-bass popping beneath him.
21. Burna Boy, “Anybody”
Classy, cosmopolitan, urbane, Afrobeats is a unique cultural phenomenon decades in the making. I admire this breakout superstar’s full-length, African Giant, but I appreciate his groove the most in smaller sampling size, especially when they’re adorned with touches like the sinuous sax part here.
22. NLE Choppa, “Camelot”
The high-energy Memphis rapper who made his name with “Shotta Flow” early last year rhymes hard and fast again over a one-handed piano hook I can’t shake and a hectic flow that makes him come across like a one-man army. And though I wish he’d find a new hobby, he does make shooting people sound very exciting. POW!
23. City Girls, “JT First Day Out”
I get why “Act Up” is everyone’s jam, but I loved how half of the trash-talking Miami duo came blasting out of stir with pent-up ferocity. “I ain’t got no love for these bitches/I ain’t Barney, bitch”? “You hoes always bringing up old shit/Go get a sugar daddy, suck an old dick"? Now that’s acting up.
24. Tinashe feat. 6LACK, “Touch & Go”
Being a Tinashe fan means you often suspect she’s capable of more than she actually delivers. But where 2019 album Songs for You was very good it was great. Based around a moody, wavering beacon of a synth, this track features Atlanta R&B fella 6lack making for a decent one-track consort. No lie: The way the strings take over the melody at the end made me gasp.
25. Insignificant Other, “I’m So Glad I Feel This Way About You”
“We’re not even friends anymore,” Sim Morales declares on this message to a former intimate as this Birmingham-based band distill a one-sided devotion and affection they wouldn’t jettison if they could into a rush of prickly guitar. How many equally thrilling indie-punk songs like this did I not get a chance to hear in 2019? That’s what keeps me listening.
26. The Scary Jokes, “Community Gardens”
27. Slowthai feat. Denzel Curry, “Psycho”
28. Denzel Curry, “RICKY”
29. Vagabon, “Water Me Down”
30. Tove Love, “Glad He’s Gone”
31. Mannequin Pussy, “Drunk II”
32. Kaytranada feat. Kali Uchlis, “10%”
33. 21 Savage, “A Lot”
34. Leonard Cohen, “Happens to the Heart”
35. Megan Thee Stallion feat. DaBaby, “Cash Shit”
36. Bad Bunny feat. El Alfa, “La Romana”
37. Miranda Lambert, “Mess With My Head”
38. Floating Points, “LesAlpx”
39. Danny Brown, “Dirty Laundry”
40. The Boyboy West Coast, “U Was at the Club (Bottoms Up)”
41. Carsie Blanton, “Buck Up”
42. Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z, Childish Gambino, Oumou Sangare, “MOOD4EVA”
43. Palehound, “Killer”
44. YBN Cordae feat Anderson .Paak, “RNP”
45. Ezra Furman, “Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone”
46. 100 Gecs, “Money Machine”
47. The New Pornographers, “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile”
48. Hand Habits, “Can’t Calm Down”
49. Noumani, “Motivation”
50. Khalid feat. Megan Thee Stallion & Yo Gotti, “Talk (Remix)”
51, Rachid Taha, “Je Suis Africain”
52. TNGHT, “First Body”
53. J Balvin feat. Bad Bunny, “Como Un Bebé”
54. Pusha T feat. Ms. Lauryn Hill, “Coming Home”
55. Vampire Weekend, “Harmony Hall”
56. Mark Ronson feat. Lykki Li, “Late Night Feelings”
57. Tkay Maidza feat. JPEGMAFIA, “Awake”
58. Bon Iver, “Hey Ma”
59. Kele, “Jungle Bunny”
60. Polo G feat. Lil Tijay, “Pop Out”
61. Kate Nash, “Trash”
62. Lunch Duchess, “Cry, Pt. II”
63. Solange, “Almeda”
64. Rapsody feat. D’Angelo and GZA, “Ibthaj”
65. Charly Bliss, “Capacity”
66. Kevin Abstract, “Joyride”
67. Sleater Kinney, “Can I Go On”
68. The Mountain Goats, “Cadaver Sniffing Dog”
69. Ghetto Sage, “Häagen Dazs”
70. Sharon Van Etten, “Seventeen”
71. Rico Nasty, “Sandy”
72. Soccer Mommy, “Lucy”
73. CupcakKe, “Squidward Nose”
74. Gully Boys, “New Song No. 2”
75. Tyler, the Creator, “Earfquake”
76. Better Oblivion Community Center, “Dylan Thomas”
77. Sudan Archives, “Confessions”
78. Julia Jacklin, “Pressure to Party”
79. Young Thug feat. Gunna, “Hot”
80. Sir Babygirl, “Everyone Is a Bad Friend”
81. Ariana Grande, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”
82. Take a Daytrip feat. Rico Nasty, slowthai & ICECOLDBISHOP, “Lighthouse”
83. Steve Lacy, “N Side”
84. Drive-By Truckers, “Armageddon’s Back in Town”
85. Anderson .Paak, “King James”
86. Cheekface, “Dry Heat/Nice Town”
87. Wilco, “Everyone Hides”
88. DJ Khaled feat. Cardi B & 21 Savage, “Wish Wish”
89. Dua Saleh, “Pretty Kitten”
90. Pip Blom, “Daddy Issues”
91. Control Top. “Change Reaction”
92. Jidenna feat. Mr. Eazi, “Zodi”
93. Madonna feat. Maluma, “Medellin”
94. Sun-El Musician feat. Ami Faku, “Into Ingawe”
95. An Horse, “This Is a Song”
96. Modest Mouse, “Poison the Well”
97. Skrillex feat. Alvin Risk, “Fuji Opener”
98. Rema, “Iron Man”
99. EARTHGANG, “UP”
100. Maddie & Tae, “Tourist in This Town”
101. BLACKPINK, “Kill This Love”
102. Battles feat. Sal Principato, “Titanium 2 Step”
103. Roisin Murphy, “Incapable”
104. Diana Gordon, “Becoming”
105. Injury Reserve feat. Anime, “Jailbreak the Tesla”
106. Robert Forster, “Inferno”
107. Liz Phair, “Good Side”
108. Kehlani feat. Ty Dolla $ign, “Nights Like This”
109. Dua Lipa, “Don’t Start Now”
110. Dessa, “Grade School Games”
111. Ex Hex, “Cosmic Cave”
112. Cassie, “Speaking Of”
113. Mekons, “Lawrence of California”
114. Taylor Swift, “Paper Rings”
115. Priests, “The Seduction of Kansas”
116. The National, “You Had Your Soul With You”
117. The Delines, “Eight Floors Up”
118. Eyelids, “It’s About to Go Down”
119. Tanya Tucker, “The House That Built Me”
120. FIDLAR, “By Myself”
121. Monica, “Commitment”
122. Alex J. (of John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch), “I Saw a White Lady Standing on the Street Just Sobbing (And I Think About It Once a Week)”
123. Sophia Eris, “Feel the Burn”
124. Ahem, “Wishing Well”
125. Girlpool, “Pretty”
126. Raphael Saadiq feat. Rob Bacon, “Something Keeps Calling”
127. Kero Kero Bonito, “Battle Lines”
128. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Julien”
129. Jessie Ware, “Mirage (Don’t Stop)”
130. Todd Snider, “Just Like Overnight”
131. John Mayer, “I Guess I Just Feel Like”
132. La Roux, “International Woman of Leisure”
133. Jamila Woods, “ZORA”
134. Yuna feat. Jay Park, “Does She”
135. Mustard feat. Migos, “Pure Water”
136. Blanco Brown feat Ciara, “The Git Up”
137. Ari Lennox, “BMO”
138. Clairo, “Bags”
139. Cornershop, “No Rock: Save in Roll”
140. Lady Midnight, “P((o))wr”
141. Jenny Lewis, “Wasted Youth”
142. Homeboy Sandman, “Far Out”
143. Willie Nelson, “Come on Time”
144. Gauche, “Body Count”
145. Big Boi feat. Sleepy Brown, “Doin’ It”
146. Saweetie, “My Type”
147. Jeffrey Lewis, “In Certain Orders”
148. Tacocat, “Grains of Salt”
149. Jason Derulo, “Too Hot”
150. Weyes Blood, “Everyday”