There is nothing purer than the perfect song. For four minutes a song can take you out of this world and into another one, a better one, and fuck knows we could all do with a bit of that after the global trashfire also known as 2019.
It’s not all been utter dogshit though. Don’t remember this year for the nonsense, remember it for Rosalía and Billie Eilish’s rehabilitation and reinvention of pop, for the homegrown rap powermoves of Little Simz and Stormzy and powerful positivity from Lizzo and Michael Kiwanuka.
Let’s remember 2019 for being a year of bangers, belters and bops and these 50 utterly stupendous tunes.
Words: Jordan Bassett, Rhian Daly, Charlotte Krol, Sam Moore, Hannah Mylrea, Thomas Smith, Dan Stubbs, Andrew Trendell, Kyann-Sian Williams.
50Caroline Polachek, ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’
On this highlight from her solo album ‘Pang’, former Chairlift singer Caroline Polachek relayed the feeling of being under attack from a super fit partner. “Don’t send me photos, you’re making it worse,” she pleaded over ‘80s synth-pop, unable to deal with just how painfully attractive her beau was. We’ve all been there, babes. RD
When to play it: When you’re giving yourself carpal tunnel syndrome while swiping through Tinder.
49BTS ft. Halsey, ‘Boy With Luv’
The first taste of BTS’ ‘Map Of The Soul: Persona’ was an incredibly sweet one – a vibrant burst of bubblegum pop with an added Halsey twist. Its Korean title translated to ‘A Poem For Small Things’ and the lyrics celebrated “the things you’re interested in, the way you walk or talk, and every little trivial habit of yours” over melodies that would make even the most mundane of days seem like a dream. RD
When to play it: If you need to get out of a funk – fast.
48Iggy Pop, ‘James Bond’
When it arrived in summer, ‘James Bond’ presented a new take on Iggy Pop – suave, sophisticated and sounding like he was about to slink to the bar and order a martini shaken but – and this bit’s important – not stirred. Over a prowling bassline, he repeated the central line, “She wants to be your James Bond”, over and over, later adding in details to paint an intriguing picture of a woman who “can suss out the spy” and “makes no sudden moves”. Stealthy. RD
When to play it: On the way to the casino in your best threads.
47Vampire Weekend, ‘Harmony Hall’
How do you get back in the swing of things after a six-year break? By picking up exactly where you left off if Vampire Weekend’s comeback single is anything to go by. They interpolated lyrics from their 2013 album ‘Modern Vampires Of The City’ (“I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die”), but Ezra and the gang took that sentiment to far groovier places. Think Happy Mondays’ ‘Step On’ meets Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’. TS
When to play it: Making homemade tie-dye t-shirts on a blissful Spring afternoon.
46Tame Impala, ‘Patience’
In which Kevin Parker’s yacht sailed into view and our trusty psychedelic captain decided to ride the sex-funk ocean. Tame Impala‘s first new track in four years made for a hazy, disco and piano-house indebted comeback. ‘Patience’ gave the fans what they’d been gagging for but also chucked in a Hall & Oates worthy wiggle to let the dancefloor know it hadn’t been abandoned. LC
When to play it: When you’re off out on the chirpse.
45Kanye West, ‘Follow God’
‘Jesus Is King’ certainly proved divisive, but it’s hard to imagine anyone failing to praise the album’s standout track, which gallops along like one of those weird spider cars ‘Ye and his dad use to cruise through the countryside in the song’s lush video. Wrapped around a booming beat and deeply evocative soul sample, this is as close to the old Kanye as we’re likely to get. Ever acted like a dickhead to your parents and later felt bad about it? Ever tried to be a better person? Then this song might be more relatable than a Kanye West song has any right to be in 2019. JB
When to play it: Curled up in a duvet of shame on New Year’s Day. Brother or sister, get healed.
44Charli XCX & Christine & The Queens, ‘Gone’
Charli XCX’s 2019 album ‘Charli’ was bursting with banging pop tunes, but it was her collaboration with Christine and the Queens that shined the brightest. The duo traded brilliantly honest lyrics that tackled social anxiety (“I feel so unstable, fucking hate these people / How they’re making me feel lately”) over the stuttering production, which perfectly fuses Charli’s avant-pop sensibilities and Christine’s funk-flecked sound. HM
When to play it: In an Uber, leaving the party early.
43Tyler, The Creator, ‘I Think’
Tyler recruited Solange for the multi-layered disco march of this ‘IGOR’ cut, on which he muses on a fractured relationship. The tumbling drums and that meticulously crafted bridge – which apparently took Tyler nine (!) attempts to perfect – make for a compelling combination, proving that there doesn’t seem to be a ceiling to Tyler’s growth as a songwriter. SM
When to play it: After you’ve finished watching the tear-jerker Call Me By Your Name, which Tyler cleverly references on the track.
42Little Simz, ‘Selfish’
The London rapper’s third album ‘Grey Area’ gave us her take on the omnipresent theme of self-love, reclaiming the word “selfish” and twisting it into something positive. “Need more self-loving, that’s how it goes,” she rapped at one point, before UK soul singer Cleo Sol’s velvet vocals soared through the chorus: “My best friend is I / I’m so selfish.” RD
When to play it: After you’ve turned off your read receipts.
Coldplay’s latest album, ‘Everyday Life’, aimed to paint a humanising picture of life in places we see on the news. The joyously dad-rocky ‘Orphans’ was central to that, a track about “Rosaleem of the damascene” and the “missile monsoon” she finds herself in. The clever bit was the lyrical twist – it’s not ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’, nor is it wallowing in sympathy. Instead it forces you to consider whether you, like Rosaleem, would be wondering this: “I want to know when I can go back and get drunk with my friends”.
When to play it: When you’re off to get drunk with your friends, of course.
40Stormzy, ‘Vossi Bop’
The king of UK rap’s comeback came loaded with expectation, and he responded with an effortless ode to letting loose with a little dance and a tipple. There’s a twinkle in his eye when he rolls out good-natured boasts (“I could never die – I’m Chuck Norris”), half-serious, half mucking about. Yet ‘Vossi Bop’ is anything but lightweight, its PM-baiting lyrics are words to live by: “Fuck the government and fuck Boris.” Potent and deceptively simple. JB
When to play it: When you’re chillin’ in Dubai. Or wherever you actually live; Stoke, Milton Keynes, etc.
39Amyl And The Sniffers, ‘Monsoon Rock’
Undoubtedly 2019’s funnest live band, Australia’s Amyl and the Sniffers came through all mullets blazing on this clattering slab of punked-up glam rock. As sleazy as a night spent huffing glue with The Cramps, ‘Monsoon Rock’ sounded like a pub fight and left you feeling like you’d been battered in a moshpit. More please. LC
When to play it: As you’re running away from the cops
Earlier this year Rosalía announced the release of her two-song EP ‘Fucking Money Man’ with a full-page advert in a Spanish newspaper that blared out its sweary title. If the ballsy ad didn’t get your attention, the EP’s opening song ‘Milionària’ will. Singing in Catalan for the first time, Rosalía mockingly praises the lavish lifestyle of the rich and famous. Brazen lyrics are accompanied by Rosalía’s trademark nu-flamenco sound, infused with skittering club beats and synthesiser licks. Bow down. HM
When to play it: On payday when you’re feeling flush.
37Rico Nasty ft. EarthGang, ‘Big Titties’
Here Maryland’s prized possession Rico Nasty teamed up with Atlanta’s own EarthGang to create a cocky club banger. True, there’s a lot of fun, dumb braggadocio here, but Rico’s final verse offers true empowerment to all her ladies: “Don’t give that boy the pussy if you know he ain’t worth it / Ain’t you learnt yet? You worth way more than a Birkin”. KS-W
When to play it: A) in the car with your friends or B) bawling away to yourself in the shower.
36Metronomy, ‘Salted Caramel Ice Cream’
Ever wondered what 12-bar blues would sound like if it was chucked in a blender with bleeping Nintendo electronics and Lipps Inc’s ‘Funky Town’? Answer: a lot like Metronomy’s delicious slice of indie-tronica ‘Salted Caramel Ice Cream’. Filled with lyrics so silly they’re brilliant (“She’s sparkling like a fresh glass of Perrier / She’s happy like my birthday”), several scoops of funk and topped off with a sprinkling of sugary hooks, it’s a sweet sonic treat. HM
When to play it: To bring some joy to your big shop on a Sunday.
DIIV’s ‘Deceiver’ is a bleak album. Jam-packed with droning guitars and hazy vocals, it’s an often impenetrable listen, but ‘Blankenship’ might be the exception to the rule. Released on the day of the Global Climate strike in September, it sees the New York group chastise coal magnate Don Blankenship for his role in the destruction of the planet. This is the album’s most succinct and razor-sharp moment, which makes it even more devastating when Zachary Cole Smith intones: “Children lead the cry / You sold them all away / Blankenship.” TS
When to play it: As you grab your placard and start marching for change.
34Anderson .Paak, ‘King James’
Anderson .Paak’s extremely welcome return to form was signposted early on with ‘Ventura’’s horn-tastic lead single ‘King James’. Named in honour of the much-worshipped NBA star Lebron James, .Paak pays homage to both the baller and NFL player-turned-social-activist Colin Kaepernick on this triumphant track, while also railing against police brutality and Donald Trump’s bullshit border wall. SM
When to play it: Courtside at an LA Lakers game, of course.
33Bring Me The Horizon, ‘Nihilist Blues’
Bring Me pushed the boundaries like never before with their almost flawless 2019 album ‘amo’. ‘Nihilist Blues’ is arguably the record’s centrepiece, a robotic and apocalyptic blast of Eurodance, featuring guest vocals and mad noises from art-pop icon Grimes. Like Arctic Monkeys, these guys are pros at changing their style but retaining their identity – there must be something in the water in Sheffield. More importantly, this absolutely fucking slaps. AT
When to play it: In your bunker when the machines take over.
32Haim, ‘Summer Girl’
Danielle Haim has explained that this gorgeous tune was inspired by the devastation of her partner’s cancer diagnosis. “I wanted to be his hope when he was feeling hopeless,” she said. It’s this positivity that permeates the song. It’s there in the gorgeous, sun-drenched instrumentals, the Lou Reed-referencing bassline and the bright lyrics. One of the best songs Haim have ever written. HM
When to play it: As the light at the end of the tunnel comes into view.
31Mark Ronson ft. Lykke Li, ‘Late Night Feelings’
Part of Ronson’s divorce-inspired album of sad bangers, title track ‘Late Night Feelings’ captured the sensation of a heart in turmoil, chasing after partners who’ll only hurt it more. Despite that, it’s packed with steel pan base, disco ball shimmer and Lykke Li’s purred vocals, which all combine to make it one of the most gloriously upside-down tracks of the year. RD
When to play it: In the club, dancing on your own (and loving every second).
‘Psychodrama’’s is one of the most compelling debut albums in recent years, a fact largely secured through Dave’s vivid and unflinching story-telling. But there were also lighter and poppier moments on this year’s Mercury Prize-scooping record, such as the smooth jazz-meets-Afrobeats-meet-UK-rap hit ‘Location’. Special guest Burna Boy’s laidback delivery is the key ingredient here, as he raises a toast to both he and Dave for making it “to the top right now”. SM
When to play it: As you’re “flight-catching, train-taking” to your next vacay.
Normani’s fourth solo single proved the former Fifth Harmony star had the magic touch for fun pop bangers and smooth R&B jams. ‘Motivation’ bulldozed the internet with trumpets, a persistent loop of sharp notes and a video featuring that basketball trick. Meanwhile her cool, casual delivery made the whole thing feel like reconnecting with a long lost friend – familiar but totally exciting. RD
When to play it: To prove you’ve got better moves than LeBron.
Solange’s tonally perfect second album ‘When I Get Home’ was all about brevity and minimalism, a meditative mood piece about recentering yourself and getting back to basics. ‘Binz’ was arguably its biggest concession to commercialism, featuring R&B legend The-Dream and a bouncing synth line, as the author daydreams about getting “a presidential suite” and leaving “with they linen”. A shooting star amid the album’s twinkling tracklist. JB
When to play it: As you pinch the complimentary bar of soap from a fancy hotel.
Body positivity made great leaps forward in 2019 and this jubilant track’s message of loving and embracing yourself felt like a victory lap for the movement. Fittingly, Lizzo has described ‘Juice’ as a state of mind – one designed to help others project the confidence that she feels. Luckily it also came with a chorus that refused to get out of your brain after you’d heard it. RD
When to play it: When you’re feeling yourself.
26Beabadoobee, ‘I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus’
Rising star Beabadoobee started the year tentatively, sharing acoustic songs from her bedroom, and finished it as a guitar hero for Gen Z. Her ‘Space Cadet’ EP is a modern take on the pioneering work of ‘90s grunge heroes Sonic Youth and antifolk duo Moldy Peaches, and on this self-aware head-banger she pays tribute to Pavement‘s iconic frontman. Wowee zowee indeed. TS
When to play it: Playing air guitar in your bedroom. Don’t forget the knee-slide.
25Tierra Whack, ‘Only Child’
Rapper Tierra Whack released five new tracks in February, fabulously dubbing the release bonanza ‘Whack History Month’. ‘Only Child’ was the first in the series, and also her first song to surpass one minute in length. Over sombre sounds and killer lines such as “Used to arch my back for you and now I’m your arch-nemesis”, Whack took aim at someone who’d done her wrong with the resigned sorrow of someone who did want to work it out really, whatever she said on the track. RD
When to play it: Whenever you’re feeling, erm, arch.
24Sunflower Bean, ‘King Of The Dudes’
“Did I just walk in on some circle jerk shit? / Just like I knew I would,” Julia Cumming sang with a great big eye roll on the title track of stellar EP ‘King Of The Dudes’. A zippy rock stomper, it saw her reluctantly offer to take up a position of power and play with ideas of assertiveness in relation to gender. It also just happened to be one of Sunflower Bean’s most potent cuts yet. RD
When to play it: When you’re chugging $3 beers with Judith Butler and Debbie Harry in the dive bar.
Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Squid do. The Brighton band’s breakthrough single tapped into the crushing anxiety felt by Britain’s youth, faced with a bleak future and unable to clamber up the rungs on the property ladder. It did so via brutal post-punk, a driving beat and pained vocals from drummer Ollie Judge. “I’ve spent my time looking for a future that doesn’t exist,” he yelled in the song’s manic breakdown, “This is my beautiful house and I can’t afford to live in it.” We hear you, Ollie. TS
When to play it: Any time you have an existential crisis about Britain’s future. So about every five minutes.
22King Princess, ‘Hit The Back’
Who needs the Spice Girls to make new music when you’ve got ‘Hit The Back’? What opened as a piano ballad soon morphed into a sonic sister song to the Girl Power anthem ‘Say You’ll Be There’, all futuristic synth whirrs and nagging pop nous. The lyrics were empowering, too, King Princess celebrating submission and telling a lover, “I don’t care if you degrade me / ‘Cause after all you are my safety / And everything you touch just feels like yours to me.” RD
When to play it: When things are getting hot and heavy.
21FKA Twigs, ‘Cellophane’
“Didn’t I do it for you?” Twigs repeatedly asked on ‘Cellophane’, the emotional desperation growing each time she posed the question. That line was the backbone of this devastating masterpiece, in which she detailed the aftermath of a relationship that played out under the scrutiny of an unsupportive public, her heartbreaking retelling played out over sparse piano and a lethargically beatboxed rhythm. RD
When to play it: In the midst of a bloody good wallow.
20The Chemical Brothers, ‘Got To Keep On’
The iconic electronic duo made their name in the ‘90s with big beat and pumping party-ready psychedelia, but they’ve mellowed ever so slightly since then. ‘Got To Keep On’, the finest song from stunning ninth album ‘No Geography’, saw the Brothers try their hand at a little disco number, twistingchucka-chucka guitars and adding Chic-sized bell rings into the song’s chorus. TS
When to play it: When things get rough. This is a marvellous, unifying anthem that says ‘no matter what’s got you down: you can do this’.
19Lana Del Rey, ‘Love Song’
In ‘Love Song’, Lana Del Rey made one of the most deeply romantic songs of her career so far – albeit one still coursing with her trademark undercurrent of darkness. “Lying on your chest in my party dress / I’m a fucking mess,” she sighed over strings in the chorus, later showing her hopeless devotion: “You know that I’d just die to make you proud”. Subtly gloomy but still gorgeous. RD
When to play it: As you’re swooning over a significant other at sunset (as attack drones circle overhead).
18Michael Kiwanuka, ‘You Ain’t The Problem’
The general consensus seems to be that Michael Kiwanuka truly came of age with his spectacular self-titled album; a modern-day soul classic that turns a lack of self-confidence into a joyous celebration of identity and individuality. The album’s opening track is a four-minute distillation of this life-affirming majesty, all shimmering Danger Mouse production, unchained backing vocals and clattering percussion. “I can’t deny myself… Don’t need to play myself,” Kiwanuka beams, finally out of his own way, free to be a legend. JB
When to play it: When you’ve told the gremlins in your head to get fucked.
17Dua Lipa, ‘Don’t Start Now’
When Dua Lipa was recording her second album ‘Future Nostalgia’ earlier this year, she shared a photo of her and Nile Rodgers in the studio. The Chic legend might not have ended up on ‘Don’t Start Now’, but it seems that being in his presence rubbed off on Lipa, who returned with this colossal banger. Packed with disco synth flashes and a funky bassline, it saw the pop star in a powerful position of strength, shutting down an ex who’d previously broken her heart. RD
When to play it: When you want to revel in coming out of a relationship better off than your shitty ex.
It’s notable that longtime fans didn’t decry the band for enlisting a sort-of nativity school choir to belt out the poppy hook to the ‘Knot’s most commercial cut to date. The thing is, you can’t claim the lead single from their impossibly brilliant sixth album ‘We Are Not Your Kind’ is anything but as hard as a bulldozer on the loose. “I’m finally holding onto letting go,” heartbroken frontman Corey Taylor roars, the sort of meaningless Slipknot lyric that makes you want to fire up the JCB and drive into a wall. JB
When to play it: When your life is falling apart but the school play starts at 6pm.
Though Caribou – aka Canadian producer Dan Snaith – has been keeping a low profile for the last five years, he’s been pumping out banging tunes under a different moniker, Daphni. This year’s ‘Sizzling’ EP was the best yet, with its triumphant, hip-shaking title track soundtracking raves and late night festivals all summer long. TS
When to play it: 2am at The Crow’s Nest at Glastonbury on the hottest weekend of the year. (Full disclosure: that happened and it was legendary.)
Nervous energy defined ‘Bags’, on which Clairo relayed the anxiety that comes with beginning to feel feelings for a friend but not knowing how they’ll react. The music mirrored her trepidation, the drum beat fidgeting uneasily like tapping feet and the staccato guitar evoking the edgy thump of a heart in panic mode. But it was the squeaks with each chord change, which sounded like big nervous gulps, that made her feelings real. RD
When to play it: In the first fearful – but exciting – days of a new crush.
13Tyler, The Creator, ‘Earfquake’
Over twinkling pianos, distorted drums and several buzzing synths, a non-rapping Tyler – with a little help from a jittery Playboi Carti and the ever-soulful croon of Charlie Wilson – implores and pleads over a heartbroken hook in a last-ditch attempt to salvage a relationship. Fun fact: a real-life earthquake, which occurred during recording, influenced the title of what became the first single from Tyler’s superb solo album ‘IGOR’. SM
When to play it: As you’re racing after the partner you’ve just erroneously dumped.
12Post Malone, ‘Circles’
Remember when Post Malone seemed like a niche concern? When 2015’s ‘White Iverson’ positioned him as a country loving rap outlier? Now Posty’s as ambiguous as, well, country rap, a genre he helped to usher into the mainstream. ‘Circles’ finds the tatted Southern belle (he was born in New York but raised in Texas) at his most accessible, crooning a wobbly chorus ready-made for karaoke. JB
When to play it: Six pints deep, when you’re sort of heartbroken but also having a ball on Hinge.
11Foals, ‘In Degrees’
It was the undeniable highlight of Foals’ epic ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost (Part 1)’, and probably the best dance-rock banger about the alienation and social dislocation of modern life that you’ll hear all year. Probably. With a funky fucker of a bassline, Balaeric vibes and heavenly synths worthy of New Order, this was peak Foals, the Oxford dons artfully turning doom into disco. AT
When to play it: At a reckless rave at the inevitable oncoming apocalypse.
10AJ Tracey, ‘Ladbroke Grove’
In a nutshell: Local boy done good pays homage to his postcode, has loads of fun
There’s that joke that Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ is the song of the summer every summer, but the reality is that no other song soundtracked the balmy and barmy middle of 2019 like London rapper AJ Tracey’s ‘Ladbroke Grove’, a perfectly formed and upbeat banger that paid homage to the music of his youth.
Underpinned by a brittle ‘90s-style UK garage beat and threaded through with a soulful chorus from new gen R&B star Jorja Smith, it’s at once a throwback and a celebration of contemporary talent. Basically, the aural equivalent of that app that makes your phone photos look like hazy polaroids.
Interviewed for his NME Big Read back in September, AJ told us that he embraces eclectic influences, a result of listening without prejudice in his younger years. “I like everything,” he said. “I don’t care about genre.” That’s why one of the logos bearing his name emulates the gnarly font beloved of grizzled metal bands while ‘Ladbroke Grove’ sees him honour UK garage.
AJ Tracey is an outward-looking artist who can’t be pinned down to one style, which is perhaps why he’s had such a successful 2019. You’d be hard-pressed to disagree when he shrugs that he’s a “microphone champ… live and direct.” Adjust your songs of the summer jokes accordingly. Jordan Bassett
Find it on: ‘AJ Tracey’
Key lyric: “I got my friends and my fam on my shoulder / I been cold but my money got me colder”
Play it when: You’re cruising the city in the height of summer.
9Little Simz, ‘Boss’
In a nutshell: Simz isn’t taking anyone’s shit, OK?
You gotta start bumping your head as soon as that impaling bassline vibrates through you. Offsetting aggressive delivery with minimalist production that thrusts every vocal crack to the fore, ‘Boss’ showed off Simz’ toughest side. The distorted echo of her screaming “stop fucking with my heart” set the cocky tone for the whole song, which in turn represented the north London rapper’s whole mission statement.
Shouting commands about the place like a boss, Simz also reminded us just how pioneering she is, setting herself apart from any other rapper in the UK. Who else is making music that sounds this old-school and ultra-modern, this stripped back but lush, this abrasive yet likeable and warm? This rolling, bass-led track is a defiant statement of intent, Simz reminding us, simply and powerfully, that she’s a “boss in a fucking dress”. She doesn’t need you or your bullshit: “You can send a diss / I will never write back”.
2019 was the year that Simz finally got her due. It should have happened with 2017’s unfairly overlooked concept album ‘Stillness In Wonderland’, but the world finally caught up with ‘GREY Area’, which was nominated for the Mercury Prize. Uncluttered and fiercely independent, ‘Boss’ summed up everything great about Simz’s third album. It was simple, perfect and potent. Kyann-Sian Williams
Find it on: ‘GREY Area’
Key lyric: “Rejected the dotted line but not the pen / Invested in myself – that was money well-spent”
When to play it: When you’ll no longer be overlooked.
8Girl In Red, ‘dead girl in the pool’
In a nutshell: A lo-fi anthem for the aftermath of a house party gone horribly wrong
Having amassed millions of streams and a hardcore army of fans (with Billie Eilish and The 1975’s Matty Healy among them), success is pretty much bolted on to 2020 for rising Norwegian phenomenon Marie Ulven, aka Girl In Red.
The lo-fi wunderkind is beloved for her raw and honest tales of teenage anxiety, depression, lust and queerness. ‘Dead Girl In The Pool’ however, is a straight-up summer bop about the wreckage left behind after a highly destructive house party. “This is the morning after, my mind is such a disaster,” mourns Ulven, “but there’s someone outside that caught my eye”. Spoiler: there’s a dead girl in the bloody pool! Nightmare!
As her hangover and recollection of the night before turns into an existential crisis, Ulven starts to question reality and her own mortality as, to her horror, she discovers that the watery corpse is in fact… herself. The surrealism is only elevated by the juxtaposition of this dark tale being set to a rush of pure grunge-pop joy.
Get excited for losing your shit to this when she tears up the road next summer, in the year that she’s already dubbed as the dawn of ‘World In Red’. Dive right in. Andrew Trendell
Find it on: ‘chapter 2’
Key lyric: “I’m the dead girl in the pool, what the fuck is going on?”
When to play it: In the grip of your next hangover.
7The 1975, ‘People’
In a nutshell: Anyone who says they saw this track coming is a liar
It’s been a funny old year for The 1975: one with great highs, like a Reading & Leeds headline set that’s already earned its place in the festival’s history books, but also one with frustration. Their companion album to last year’s ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’, titled ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’, is now about as delayed as Brexit. And its three tracks so far haven’t helped fans form a picture of what to expect come 2020. We’ve had the latest version of their recurring instrumental track ‘The 1975’ – this time with a spoken-word polemic from Greta Thunberg, we’ve had the skittering, tonal ‘Frail State Of Mind’ and we’ve had ‘People’ – the scuzziest, punkiest, most excoriating song the foursome have ever released.
Actually, the thing that links those three tracks is nothing to do with genre (per their manifesto of genre agnosticism) and everything to do with message. ‘The 1975’ demanded care for the environment. ‘Frail State Of Mind’ demanded self care. And ‘People’, beneath the filth and the fury, demanded care for one another in the most boiled-down, basic, so-simple-even-Donald-Trump-
Speaking to NME this year, Matty Healy said ‘People’ was written as the band fled a US show in which Matty had spoken out against gun violence and there were concerns for his safety. On stage, speaking between songs, Matty can sometimes take a roundabout way of making his point. But in this song, the band were concise, angry and savage. Simplicity is scary, perhaps, but it sure makes the message hit home. Dan Stubbs
Find it on: ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’, due in 2020
Key lyric: “I know it feels pointless and you don’t have any money / But we’re all just gonna try our fucking best”
When to play it: Any time you’re tempted to smash something.
6Sharon Van Etten, ‘Seventeen’
In a nutshell: An anthemic love letter to your teenage self
Sharon Van Etten surprised many fans with her gutsy rebirth on rocky fifth album ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’. Previously celebrated for the hushed intensity of her music, Van Etten this time favoured synths and distorted guitars to muse on new motherhood, love and a complicated nostalgia for her youth.
Nowhere did the theme come into greater focus than on ‘Seventeen’, the glorious third single from the New Jersey native’s first album in five years. The song’s propulsive beats, growling guitars and ‘80s synths gave a punchy backdrop to Van Etten’s letter written to her 17-year-old self. Playing out like Bruce Springsteen gone desert rock, ‘Seventeen’ sees Van Etten pay homage to her adopted home of NYC, where she’s lived for the past 15 years. “Downtown hotspot used to be on this street,” she sings, remembering old haunts that have since disappeared.
“I see you so uncomfortably alone / I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown,” she tells her younger self, compelling the listener to understand that, yes, you may mourn your past life, but with age comes a more assured sense of identity.
Van Etten’s feral scream at the bridge forms the track’s gut-punching apex – proof that she certainly wasn’t here to make a quiet comeback. Charlotte Krol
Find it on: ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’
Key lyric: “I used to be free / I used to be seventeen”
When to play it: Drunk at a party, surrounded by old friends who bellow the lyrics back at you.
5Fontaines D.C., ‘Big’
In a nutshell: A rousing battle cry that set the Dublin punks on the way to huge things
From the thunderous crash of drums that opened this song, which in turn opened Fontaines D.C.‘s incendiary debut album ‘Dogrel’, it was clear something monumental was coming our way. When frontman Grian Chatten bellowed “Dublin in the rain is mine” as a torrent of guitars joined the drums, he set the tone for one of 2019’s best debut albums. Like the album, ‘Big’ is specific but universal, informed by Irish poetry dating back centuries but refreshed for a new era.
Fontaines had set their stall out across two years with a handful of promising, scrappy early singles, but it was on ‘Big’ that they announced themselves as a band to really believe in. Catchy and furious in equal measure, ‘Big’ is a song to feel invincible to, and when Chatten yells. “My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big,” it not only sounded like a mission statement from a soon-to-be-huge band, but also served as a rally cry to any downtrodden kid who needs some hope to cling to. Will Richards
Find it on: ‘Dogrel’
Key lyric: “My childhood was small / But I’m gonna be big.”
When to play it: Whenever you want to feel invincible.
4Lil Nas X, ‘Old Town Road’
In a nutshell: The rootin’ tootin’ country-trap banger that dominated 2019
With the original song and a series of remixes (featuring artists as varied as country legend Billy Ray Cyrus and BTS rapper RM), Lil Nas X created a song that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The “old town road” at its centre represented the path to success, the verses seeing him progress from being broke to wearing a “cowboy hat from Gucci” alongside his classic “Wrangler on my booty”.
Many may have written off ‘Old Town Road’ as a throwaway novelty, but one of 2019’s most inescapable tracks was also one of its most important. It opened up conversations about genre and race after it was removed from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for not featuring, the organisation said, “enough elements of today’s country music”.
It also proved once again that music doesn’t need to rely on the industry’s traditional machinations to make a splash; it went viral on video creation app TikTok and broke chart records in the US. ‘Old Town Road’ stayed at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for 19 weeks. Not bad for a track with a Nine Inch Nails-sampling beat that was bought online for $30. RD
Find it on: ‘7’
Key lyric: “Can’t nobody tell me nothin’ / You can’t tell me nothin’”
When to play it: When you need to giddy up and spur yourself on to success.
3Georgia, ‘About Work The Dancefloor’
In a nutshell: A euphoric, pulsating pop song set to make this Domino-signed singer a star
Georgia’s fantastic single served as a refreshing reminder that one brilliant song can change the trajectory of an artist’s career. A euphoric slice of pure pop perfection, ‘About Work The Dancefloor’ arrived after a muted response to the singer/drummer’s self-titled 2015 debut album, and began to gather pace across the year, remaining on the A List at Radio 1 throughout the summer. The momentum was so strong, in fact, that Georgia delayed the release of her second album ‘Seeking Thrills’ (now due in January) to let the momentum bubble up even further.
‘About Work The Dancefloor’ is a work of pure passion. “I don’t have much in terms of money now / I don’t have material gifts for you,” Georgia sings, instead offering an invitation to join her on the dancefloor in utter bliss. Since the song’s release, it’s been given a host of brilliant, techno-leaning remixes from producers such as The Black Madonna, Factory Floor‘s Gabe Gurnsey and more, and was a staple in festival DJ sets across the summer. As well as being one of the best pop songs of the year, then, ‘About Work The Dancefloor’ has been embraced by the dance community. NME recently named Robyn‘s ‘Dancing On My Own’ the best song of the 2010s, and as we enter a new decade, Georgia has gifted us its spiritual successor. Will Richards
Find it on: ‘Seeking Thrills’, which is due out in 2020.
Key lyric: “Finally my heart slipped / Finally I found something new”
When to play it: When you’re getting glammed up for the biggest night of the year.
2Billie Eilish, ‘Bad Guy’
In a nutshell: The once-in-a-generation star’s bonkers smash hit
Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’ has no real right to be a chart-topper. Why? Well, there are the barely-audible vocals, the muddy bassline and that final third, where the song tears itself in two with a headache-inducing beat-switch. Oh, and the meme-ready “Duh!”, before the song’s wobbly post-chorus wig-out. Yet, somehow, this song went to Number One.
Billie was similarly confused. “I knew I liked the song a lot, but I had no idea what to expect,” she told NME in a recent interview. “When we were making that song, me and Finneas thought nobody was going to care about it. We thought they would like it, but we didn’t think it would do what it did.”
This is indicative of Billie’s year. She didn’t so much rip up the rule book as write her very own, detailing the blueprint for the next decade of pop music. Her debut album ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ favoured the disruptive and freaky corners of her and older brother Finneas’ bedrooms, where this album was made, and that was most evident on this thumping single. Tom Smith
Find it on: ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’
Key lyric: “My mommy likes to sing along with me / But she won’t sing this song / If she reads all the lyrics / She’ll pity the men I know”
When to play it: When all the lights go off and the monsters under your bed start grumbling
1Mura Masa ft. slowthai, ‘Deal Wiv It’
In a nutshell: Move aside, the rest – 2019’s swaggering bovver boy has something to say
“It’s deep mate,” goes a lyric in this outrageously fun, beat-fuelled, boot-boy punk stomper. And it is deep – not necessarily the observation being referred to (“Every second you waste is a second closer to the pearly gates”) but the song as a whole, which skewers contemporary British life like a shish kebab.
‘Deal Wiv It’ dropped just last month, and the way it’s smashed its way to the top spot in our Songs Of 2019 list reflects Slowthai’s unstoppable rise in 2019, a year in which he released a Mercury-nominated debut album, slayed the festivals and became an anti-establishment icon.
Along with the Northampton rapper’s ascent, we’ve seen him pushed and pulled in a musical tussle between the dirgy trap of his youth and his increasing flirtation with the punk scene – including a close association with Idles. Arguably, that’s resulted in the future punk sound crystallised in this collaboration with hottest-of-the-hot producer Mura Masa, a man who’s been going through his own artistic existential crisis, pivoting from electronic music to guitars.
The result is something with so much energy it’s like drinking Monster in a moshpit, a Parklife-like stream-of-consciousness with precise comic timing and heaps of nutter-on-the-loose attitude, as if the spirit of Keith Flint were haunting the studio.
There’s been a massive trend towards politicised, angry music over 2019, not least on Slowthai’s own ‘Nothing Great About Britain’. While ‘Deal Wiv It’ doesn’t slap you round the chops with its message, we learn plenty about social mobility, tall poppy syndrome and personal politics as we join Slowthai bimbling through his day. If you don’t identify with the line “I woke up, I slept and woke up again / And this life don’t ever fucking change,” you’ve never had a job.
The UK’s political hydra has grown a new, more fearsome head in the weeks following the track’s release, but ‘Deal Wiv It’ feels even more relevant post-general election, because in a place of hopelessness, it’s the sound of your happy-go-lucky mate telling you to pull yourself together. Life gives you lemons? Deal wiv it. Dan Stubbs
Find it on: ‘R.Y.C’, due in 2020.
Key lyric: “I went to the pub and asked for a pint for three quid/ He said it’s a fiver, well that’s gentrification, you prick”
When to play it: Headphones on and pounding the pavements with a two-litre bottle of cheap cider in a blue plastic carrier bag