From Lil Nas X to 100 gecs, Rina Sawayama and Rosalía, we look back on our favourite songs of the year
2019 was the year of hot girl summers and yeehaw agendas, of TikTok bangers and the Telfar bags. It was the year that Tyler, the Creator made his grand return to the UK and subsequently kettled a load of hypebeasts in Peckham. It was the year that we lost some extraordinary talents, from legends like Scott Walker and Mark Hollis to the sudden deaths of Philippe Zdar, Nipsey Hussle, and Juice WRLD. As we sit at the end of the year and on the cusp of a new decade, we look back on some of our favourite songs of 2019.
20. JAH X, “TELFAR BAG”
With the fervour for Telfar Clemens’ unassuming Shopping Bag having reached its dizzying peak in 2019, it was only a matter of time before its cult status was cemented in musical form. Stepping up to do just that was NYC based SoundCloud rapper Jah X, whose track “Telfar Bag” dropped in the midst of the SS20 fashion season (when else?). “The Telfar bag is great!” he told us at the time. “I can wear it with literally anything, even the cheapest outfit, and the bag will make me feel rich.” With the pioneering New York label giving the song its seal of approval via a shout-out on Instagram, Im holding out for Jah X to make an appearance on the soundtrack of the next Telfar runway show – and continuing to rinse it on Spotify in the meantime. (Emma Elizabeth Davidson)
19. AYA, “THAT HYDE TRAKK”
“Begin with an earthquake, work up to a climax.” Samuel Goldwyn, the founder MGM studios, and maybe Hollywood’s most routinely underwhelmed producer, was full of inspirational aphorisms like these. “This atom bomb is dynamite,” “Nobody can change night into day without asking me first,” “Goldwyn pictures griddle the earth.” And, like Goldwyn, Manchester producer AYA (formerly known as LOFT), who released her debut EP and departt from mono games via Tri Angle in April, an earthquake is point dot. The EP’s standout song, “That Hyde Trakk”, builds from an acid murmur to a series of false starts, from birdsong jungle on Benadryl to a techno depth-charge. So sure is it of its movements and reaches for transcendency, it’s the year's most blatant assault on the creative middle ground. (Jack Mills)
18. LIL NAS X, “OLD TOWN ROAD”
Sure, the original version came out last December, but with its record-breaking 19 weeks at the top of the US charts, who could deny “Old Town Road”’s place in 2019’s pop cultural history? A key part of the ‘yeehaw agenda’, Lil Nas X and his cowboy hat stood against the burgeoning sense of white American patriarchal patriotism and the erasure of black artists within certain spaces (Billboard’s Hot Country chart was forced to rethink the racialisation of genre after claiming the track was not country enough). At the same time, it’s also just an obscenely catchy, joyous song that has been inescapable, an antidote to an era where many of pop and rap’s biggest singles have sounded increasingly nihilistic and sad.
With its cartoony Nine Inch Nails banjo sample lending a quaint charm, the track’s rise and rise is very much of its time: an artist who once ran a Nicki Minaj stan account releasing a song that gained popularity via TikTok; a video originally created from Red Dead Redemption footage; endless remixes with the most perfect, virality-ensuring features (Billy Ray Cyrus, Young Thug, yodelling kid Mason Ramsey, RM from K-pop stars BTS). During the summer of “Old Town Road”, Lil Nas X also came out, making him the first ever artist to do so while having a song at number one. In many ways, then, “Old Town Road” is not just a song that marks where things are in 2019, but also how they might be in the decade to come. (Tara Joshi)
17. REMA, “DUMEBI”
Nigeria is currently producing some of the most exciting artists on the planet: its fashion scene has exploded, and Afropop has gone global through artists like Wizkid and the Grammy-nominated ‘African Giant’ Burna Boy. One of the year’s best tracks was released by a 19-year-old from Benin City called Rema, whose infectious debut single “Dumebi” feels scientifically created to stay in your head all day. The teenage pop prodigy followed it up with equally successful singles, but “Dumebi” and its joyous video marked the arrival of another Nigerian superstar whose music is changing the way that the world sounds. (Thomas Gorton)
16. ASHLEY O, “ON A ROLL”
It was almost destiny that “On a Roll” would be co-opted by gay men everywhere as the anthem of the year; a manufactured pop tune, performed by a fictional songstress drugged and mind-controlled to pump out melodies for masses of teeny boppers. First appearing on the third episode on season five of Black Mirror, Ashley O (played by Miley Cyrus) releases a trio of tracks, but it’s “On a Roll” – inverting Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole” with the corny lyrics “Hey yeah whoa-oh, I’m on a roll” (sadly not “hey, I’m a hoe” as some were led to believe) and cookie cutter melodies – that really stands out. Played on repeat up and down the country this summer during Pride, you’ll likely continue hearing this song (or choppy remixes) in clubs in Gran Canaria for years to come. (Dominic Cadogan)
15. JAI PAUL, “DO YOU LOVE HER NOW”
Jai Paul’s mysterious reputation and musical genius were both well-established more than a decade ago, as far back when the buzz from his MySpace page hit a fever pitch. And yet while most of the pop world exposes more and more of itself via music rollouts, new releases, and ubiquitous social media posts, Paul has maintained his own path, meticulously picking out his next steps through the wilderness at his own pace. There’s a similar self-determination to the surprise-dropped single “Do You Love Her Now”, in which Paul builds out a journey of tight harmonies, pulsing neon synths, and a guitar fluttering down from the halls of soft rock glory. The track plays out like Miguel and Panda Bear tripping out on Prince records, endless swag conveyed in sleepy sweetness and buttery experimentation.
But “Do You Love Her Now” reaches far beyond the sum of those parts, the heavenly funk both seductive and pure. Jai Paul sorts through sensations of love and struggle here, joy and pain, and counterbalances the pained sighs of loss with hope for more love around the corner. No one does it like Paul; it just comes down to wondering when we’ll next get to learn that lesson. (Lior Phillips)
14. ROSALÍA, “CON ALTURA” (FEAT. J BALVIN)
Alt-flamenco collides with the infectious energy of reggaeton and continent-stomping pop sensibilities on Rosalía’s standout 2019 hit “Con Altura”, featuring Colombian star J Balvin. Translating to ‘with height’, “Con Altura” was one of the seismic markers for both Spanish language and Latin music dominating 2019. Slaloming across Spanish producer El Gunicho’s syncopated beats, Rosalía and Balvin’s honeyed voices intertwine in a flashy, full-throttle tale of the high life: “Vivo rápido y no tengo cura / Iré joven pa’ la sepultura” – live fast, die young in the delicious fug of this dembow-driven banger. (Anna Cafolla)
13. MEGAN THEE STALLION, “REALER”
2019 was undoubtedly Megan Thee Stallion’s year, we were just along for the ride. With just three words, she defined the summer – but while “Hot Girl Summer” would be an obvious choice to include in this list for this reason, it’s “Realer” that really defined the year of Hot Girl Meg. Released in May on her debut mixtape Fever, it set the parameters of our hot girl summer: being “realer than real” with the IDGAF attitude of not letting “one hater stop shit”. It’s all delivered with the stirring force and conviction of someone who can spit out poetry like “I’ll knock the shit out that bitch like an enema”. In hindsight, the lyrics read like a self-fulfilling prophecy of Megan’s year: “They put that check in my hand, now I’m killin’ ’em,” and, “Straight to the top, you cannot reach me.” With a voice that commands attention, and a message as consistent as the strength of her knees, “Realer” is Megan Thee Stallion’s “recipe for this hot shit”, a Hot Girl manifesto for living free and reaping the rewards. Sign us TF up. (Vanessa Hsieh)
12. RINA SAWAYAMA, “STFU!”
For most of my life, I didn’t have the words to articulate what microaggressions were, let alone an anthem for how frustrated they made me feel. In Rina Sawayama’s “STFU”, I now finally have something that does both. The nu-metal-inspired track blends searing screams and sinister-sweet, repeated refrains of “Shut the fuck up!”, an outpouring of years of pent-up anger delivered in a sonic language that speaks straight to my inner angsty teen. Lyrics like “How come you don’t expect me to get mad when I’m angry?” give voice to pervasive, fetishised stereotypes of meek, subservient Asian women, while Sawayama deliciously inverts this power-play, enacting her own fantasy of “taping your big mouth shut”. This “big mouth” belonging to the everyman white-boi-with-yellow-fever who bookends the video with cringingly close-to-home conversations that trigger my own, all too frequent, formative memories of middle-aged white men shooting their shot by comparing me to Lucy Liu, random Asian porn stars, and even (I wish I was joking) pulling Chinese-Japanese eyes at me.
In this way, “STFU” is more than just a track of the year, it’s essentially the soundtrack to my life, and one I wish I had as a teenager experiencing these things. At least I can now keep this song on repeat as a therapeutic distraction the next time a white man tries to stop me on the Tube to ask me where I’m really from – y’know, ethnically? (Vanessa Hsieh)
11. 100 GECS, “MONEY MACHINE”
100 gecs dropped their debut album, 1000 gecs, back in May, but it wasn’t until the final few months of the year that people outside of ultra-dedicated internet music circles started to pick up on it. Once unearthed, critics from the New York Times to Pitchfork dissected Dylan Brady and Laura Les’s references to mainstream and underground music, discussing the way they mash ideas into their own style of recombinant, maximalist pop. And sure, digging into the band’s reference points is fun, but treating 100 gecs purely as an intellectual exercise is a bit of a dead-end, because you end up missing the obvious – that their music is so bold and full of life. “Money Machine” is 100 gecs distilled, an explosive pop song underpinned by legitimately excellent songcraft, giddily fun production, and some of the greatest opening lyrics of the year: “Hey you lil piss baby, you think you’re so fucking cool? Huh? / You think you’re so fucking tough? You talk a lotta big game for someone with such a small truck.” It’s Alternate Earth pop for the terminally online, and an antidote to the risk-free, middlebrow music that dominates the streaming charts. (Selim Bulut)
10. SKEPTA, “BULLET FROM A GUN”
In the three years since Skepta dropped his Mercury Prize-winning fourth album Konnichiwa, the rapper not only became a chief in Nigeria, but also a dad – something that permeates his newest record, Ignorance is Bliss, and in particular its melancholic opening track, “Bullet From a Gun”. A reflective album intro traversing identity and heartbreak, the song is at its most effective when contemplating how fatherhood has changed the rapper. Evolving from the elusive, plane-hopping Skepta heard in 2016’s eponymous Konnichiwa opening track, the rapper’s new responsibility has transformed his outlook on life: “All I know is there’s no better feeling / Than getting home and seeing my little girl in a cot.” Set in the London Underground, the track’s accompanying video sees Skepta waiting with a buggy as life moves around him and he ruminates, “Lessons have to get learned.” (Brit Dawson)
09. DAVE, “BLACK”
This year was Dave’s year. Starring in Top Boy, giving Glastonbury one of its most memorable sets with his impromptu duo with Alex, then winning the Mercury Prize, he became a poster boy for the rise of UK rap. The mononymic 21-year-old artist’s Psychodrama was an impressively coherent debut – the star of which was the anthemic “Black”, a song packed with affirmations and all the things that make black people lit: our joy, beauty, excellence, and resilience. Dave reminisces about growing up in barbershops, the shades of difference among the diaspora, and the “waves” of our hair. He also gives us the black history lessons we never learned in school, tracing our more painful histories like the exploitative and painful looting of African nations: “Black is people namin’ your countries on what they trade most / Coast of Ivory, Gold Coast, and the Grain Coast… But most importantly to show how deep all this pain goes / West Africa, Benin, they called it slave coast.” Having these discussions play out on national radio stations kickstarted a much-needed conversation around race in the UK, showing the power of our new national treasure: Santandave. (Kemi Alemoru)
08. CLAIRO, “BAGS”
It’s rare that a song comes from a true source of feeling; when everything about it coheres to that universally experienced, individually expressed emotion. It’s hard to put words to it – because it is a feeling, after all – but you can recognise it straight away. That’s how I felt listening to Clairo’s “Bags” for the first time earlier this year. As soon as that three-chord riff begins, there was nothing in the way between me and the song’s effect. I was immediately implicated into its tenderness, pulled onto Clairo’s settee, as she recalls the unbearable isthmus that stretches between her and the girl she desires. “I don’t wanna watch TV anymore,” she sings. Drums ricochet and become more urgent towards the chorus, and then collapse into a weird, listless piano riff, saving the song from becoming just a bit too familiar. It’s a feat of impeccable balance and clarity, which is why “Bags” felt like a song I’d been waiting for forever. (Emma Madden)
07. FKA TWIGS, “HOLY TERRAIN” (FEAT. FUTURE)
On the mesmeric and molten “holy terrain”, FKA twigs wraps herself in the concentric circles of a trap beat, her lithe vocals enrobed in the knotty production. Returning at full strength after a three-year gap, twigs links up on the MAGDALENE single with Future, one of the decade’s most iconic and influential voices. The Atlanta rapper reaches the emo peak, his rippling Auto-Tune the perfect counterpoint to her voice as it fills the narrowest spaces. The track flips a sample of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, a choral group of Bulgarian women in traditional folk dress, into a seductive hopscotch taunt. As she fills every gap in the beat, the whispering cool of twigs’ voice blooms into a steely arc in the midst of the endless sub-bass. The icy chimes and creaking electronic burn act like a daub of Tiger Balm. The chorus reveals the danger of love this passionate, twigs willing to lash out at anything within reach: “Now my fruits are for taking and your fingers are stained / Do you still think I’m beautiful, when you light me in flames?” Throughout, Future cries and twigs dares him to just get bold and follow her into the fire – and it’s hard to imagine a way to resist the pull of that voice. (Lior Phillips)
06. SHYGIRL, “UCKERS”
A campy horror movie scream opens “Uckers”, the first release from Shygirl since her 2018 EP, Cruel Practice. The scream underpins most of the track, droning on in the background before being joined by an irresistibly funky dancehall beat (produced by Sega Bodega) that dares you not to join the dancefloor and the artist’s seductive, whispering vocals. “I don’t give a fuck about you / But I really keep on fucking / ’til I fuck all of you n***as,” she boasts, before reminding you about her “soul destroying pussy”. At a time where musical empowerment comes from shameless pop, Shygirl’s twisted lyrics and dark beats are a palate cleanser. (Dominic Cadogan)
05. CHARLI XCX, “GONE” (FEAT. CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS)
Though this track and video can be summed up in two words (“Gay rights!”), I will try to elaborate further. Pop’s polymath Charli XCX joins forces with French maverick Chris to give every queer girl this side of the hemisphere an introspective bop-induced coronary. PC Music’s A.G. Cook and Ö’s production shines, with dislocated pop codas and a catapult-every-wig-into-the-neighbouring-galaxy hook, the tune juddering and fizzing into each stunning narrative arc like a disco heydey banger. “I am just now realising, they don’t care / I try real hard, but I’m caught up by my insecurities,” Charli sings in a rare and real moment of vulnerability. Existential fears explored and packaged up in a facade-cracking, frenetic piece of pop perfection. (Anna Cafolla)
04. CAROLINE POLACHEK, “DOOR”
Having lent her (heavily distorted) vocals to Tommy Cash and Danny L Harle’s happy hardcore-inflected “X-Ray” at the latter half of last year, this autumn saw Caroline Polachek drop her long-awaited album, Pang. Where “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” and the simultaneously soaring and breathy ballad “Pang” were more immediate bops, it was “Door” that quickly rose up the ranks to become my own personal favourite from the album – even if it did consistently make me well up on the bus to work throughout the three weeks or so I was first rinsing it. On “Door”, Polachek’s vocals soar across the sprawling, glittering musical arrangement, demonstrating the unique and penetrating sense of longing she’s able to convey with just her voice. Bonus points go to her for basically kick-starting the pirate-y trend we dubbed the Ahoy Agenda – who doesn’t love to see a vintage Vivienne Westwood corset on the cover of an album? (Emma Elizabeth Davidson)
03. LANA DEL REY, “NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL”
There’s a Vine, from circa 2014, of Lana Del Rey meeting a fan who’d gotten the singer to sign her autograph on his arm at a concert, then traced over it with a tattoo gun. “You fucking didn’t,” she croons, in her most Lanaesque affectation: her register stays the same mocking monotone, but you can tell that she’s been moved. “Norman Fucking Rockwell”, the opening song and title track of Del Rey’s sixth album, is kind of like that. It does nothing to break or elaborate the narrative of all-American troubles that we’ve come to expect from the Lana Del Rey sonic universe, which has left some critics of NFR! ambivalent. But this is a singer who’s made an artform out of clichés – not breaking the narrative is the statement. “Two more years gone by,” she seems to say, “and still the same fucking America.” (Zsofia Paulikovics)
02. MUNA, “NUMBER ONE FAN”
“So I heard the bad news / Nobody likes me and I’m gonna die alone,” blast the opening lyrics to MUNA’s exuberantly wry track, “Number One Fan”. It’s a bit of a fake-out – the track quickly changes course as singer Katie Gavin proclaims, “Wouldn’t you like if I believed those words?” – but will probably resonate with anyone trapped in our epidemic of loneliness. In the aftermath of last year’s “thank u, next” awakening, self-love has been the mantra of 2019, as well as something MUNA had to re-learn on their second album Saves the World. Accompanied by a compelling video in which Gavin comes face-to-face with her biggest fan, “Number One Fan” sees the trio – Gavin, and guitarists Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin – become much-needed stans of themselves. With a pulsating beat and infectious chorus, there’s no denying this is one of the biggest bangers of the year, even for those of us who love to wallow in self-loathing. (Brit Dawson)
01. TYLER, THE CREATOR, “EARFQUAKE”
Few collectives have been as instrumental to the pop culture in the 2010s as Odd Future, and right at the centre of that collective’s carefree, colourful, DIY existence and reach was Tyler, the Creator. It feels like we grew up alongside the vibrant work and personality of Tyler Okonma, from the provocative but nonchalant teen cussing out everyone (especially women and queer people) to the fully formed adult who is more comfortable in himself, is gay, and, actually, just wants to find love (Left at London explains the transformation best). The journey reached its apex this year with IGOR, an album about love and heartbreak that finally placed Tyler in the trajectory of one of his idols, Pharrell, in marking him out as a deeply impressive producer and songwriter as well as an artist. There are a lot of moments from this blonde-wigged masterpiece that stand out with their plush, soul-tinged beauty, the track that feels most emblematic of Tyler’s growth this decade is its lead single, “EARFQUAKE”.
Written with Justin Bieber in mind, and then offered to Rihanna, it seems remarkable that anyone would turn this song down – but then, there’s something very specifically Tyler about its schmaltzy pianos and the scuzzy drums as he sings about a romantic partner who he needs, even though he’s treated them pretty badly. “Don’t leave, it’s my fault!” he refrains with the legendary Charlie Wilson. Also, can we take a minute for Playboi Carti’s appearance on this? It proves Tyler’s deep understanding of how to craft a song where he pushes his collaborators into spaces where they’re unrecognisable. This is not a rap album where someone like Kanye West steals the show with his feature, but instead where he blends seamlessly into a bigger vision.
In 2011, the black-and-white video for “Yonkers” saw Tyler playing with a cockroach before eating it and vomiting, his eyes turning black as his nose bleeds and, finally, him hanging from the ceiling. “EARFQUAKE”’s plot, meanwhile, finds Igor in a baby blue suit, performing with angular energy on a talk show and playing the piano, then setting the stage alight with his cigarette before a firefighter (also played by Tyler) comes to the rescue. A narrative around self-destruction remains, but everything has changed: as we get older, there’s more at stake (“When it all comes crashing down I’ll need you!”). On its surface, “EARFQUAKE” is a breezy love song that makes you feel infinite, but dig a little deeper and you hear an artist’s growth as a songwriter and as a person. Tyler showed us he’s willing to be softer, more vulnerable and more self-assured in this polished execution of his vision. (Tara Joshi)