The 15 Best Songs Of 2019
The songs that broke the internet, broke our hearts - or helped heal them.
Yesterday, we took a look back over the albums that have moved the needle in 2019 — from American masterpieces to pioneering works of Australian hip-hop.
Today, we turn our attention to songs — and it’s hard to think of another year when the internet has so violently affected the music we’ve been absorbing. The rise of TikTok pushed Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ into record breaking territory and Lizzo’s 2017 track ‘Truth Hurts’ back into the public ear.
Even Billie Eilish’s ‘bad guy’ was helped along by some one of the best music memes of the year. The impact of the collision of internet culture and the music industry is only just beginning to be realised — as we round the corner into the next decade, the possibilities loom large.
It was a strong year on the local front, with Thelma Plum, Ali Barter, and RVG all creating career-best work, while newer acts like Baker Boy and Body Type continue to flex their considerable muscles.
So here are the songs from 2019 that broke the internet, or broke our hearts — or tried to heal them. Dive in.
Thelma Plum — ‘Better in Blak’
About every artist on the planet has had a go at writing an anthem dedicated to the ‘I’ — braggadacio is the name of the day, and our age puts a unique focus on loving oneself before you can love anybody else. But ‘Better in Blak’, the thrumming lead single of Thelma Plum’s new record of the same name, puts those other testaments to one’s own energy to shame.
A lot of that comes down to the snarling humour. Plum has always been funnier than most pop stars around her, and on ‘Better in Blak’, that’s taken to the next level. “But fuck that, I look better in black,” is a sentiment that comes from a real, raw place, of course, and the song is shaped around a number of life events that will be familiar to someone with even a passing knowledge of Plum’s story.
But it’s not some dour piece of confessional. It’s funny. It’s alive. And it’s a deliciously snarled piece of pop songwriting, lines to live by spoken with a smile. There’s that old adage that the best revenge is a life well-lived, and that’s never been truer than right here.
Charli XCX feat. Christine and the Queens — ‘Gone’
It’s not right that one of Charli XCX’s best songs isn’t about partying: rather than revelling the after-afterparty, on ‘Gone’ Charli is tired of finding rooms filled with culture vultures and false friends.
Charli’s known for high-octane, popper-friendly pop, but she’s more than capable of emotional heft, too. Still, it’s not necessarily the confession that carries ‘Gone’ over into top-tier territory, but the way it comes out in-between classic Charli sounds: metallic synths and a simple snare. Even in protest, she’s still performing the role of party-starter.
Charli’s not alone, either: while her label might’ve forced a tepid collab with Lizzo earlier this year, ‘Gone’ sees her commiserate with Christine and the Queens over anxiety. The feature brings Christine’s fearlessness to the fore-front, with a show-stealing verse: it’s as much a duet as it is a coaching lesson. We’re listening.
Lil Nas X — ‘Old Town Road’
If you told me last year that the second-coming of Vine would spawn this year’s biggest breakout star, I wouldn’t have believed you. In fact, if you then told me he’d collaborate with Billy Ray Cyrus, and take on Billboard as well as racist country music fans, I probably would have blocked you. But 2019 is here to make fools of us all.
The story of ‘Old Town Road’ is as perplexing as it is heartwarming. From his past as a TweetDecking Nicki Minaj stan to the song’s ascent on TikTok, ‘Old Town Road’ has become an international symbol of rebellion. Having just spent its 13th week at number one, Lil Nas X’s country-trap hit is something of a phenomenon.
Whether you love it, hate it or are absolutely sick of it, there’s no denying the joy it brings. And Lil Nas X knows this. Taking his show on the road to elementary school Mayfield Heights in Ohio, the Atlanta rapper surprised a crowd of tiny fans. In the video, the kids can be seen singing along to every word, exhilarated by the star that stands before them.
Whether Lil Nas X is a one-hit-wonder or not doesn’t matter, because he was able to inject joy in a year desperate for a distraction.
— Kish Lal
RVG — ‘Alexandra’
Melbourne based wunderkinds RVG burst onto the scene with a record that announced itself with no glowing press, no major ad campaign, no endorsements from their peers. In an overcrowded and busy market, that usually means death. But that self-titled debut cut through the noise on the basis of its sheer genius alone, creating waves through the skill of the songwriting, not some cosmetic, capitalistic tomfoolery.
So, here comes ‘Alexandra’, the group’s new single, in almost exactly the same context. The song’s music video is stripped-back and lo-fi, announced with little in the way of a PR blitz. And again, through nothing less than sheer talent and skill, RVG have presented themselves as one of the most important and distinct bands in Australia.
Cycling between flashes of crushing emotional honesty and silver and glinting guitar lines, ‘Alexandra’ hurts almost as much as it uplifts. It’s a work of great emotional nuance and intelligence — but it never beats you over the head with its brilliance. It’s this mini-work of art that makes no demands of you whatsoever. Only that you listen, and have your whole self changed.
Angel Olsen — ‘All Mirrors’
‘All Mirrors’ is everything we want from Angel Olsen: etherial, disorientating, sweeping. For her fourth album (named after ‘All Mirrors’), the North Carolinian planned to release a dopplegänger album: one paired back, and one recorded with a 12-piece orchestra. When she got to the latter, she ditched the former — the decadent baroque-pop sound swells too perfectly against her deep voice, somehow always flecked with distance.
‘All Mirrors’ is endlessly refracting meaning. “At least at times it knew me”, she sings. Who is it? Never mind: a wall of synths take command, washing her out. Then, slowly, a score of strings and a building snare drum — before the chorus comes back in. Back to where we began. If “All mirrors are erasing”, then erase us, Angel!
Carly Rae Jepsen — ‘Too Much’
Carly Rae Jepsen rarely hits emotion square in the eye. A lot of her music exists on the edges — she’s always just about to fall in love, or just about to break up. The relentless yearning and the torrid heartbreak and adolescent-strength crushing, is a large part of what makes her music so irresistible.
So when she sings “I’ll do anything to get to the rush” on ‘Too Much’ — a standout from her album Dedicated — it’s hardly a surprising revelation. It could almost be apologetic: “When I party, then I party too much/When I feel it, then I feel it too much“, she sings in the chorus over punchy drums. But it’s not an apology, it’s a celebration — one that manages to capture the essence of CRJ in three euphoric minutes.
Party too much, feel too much, drink too much, think too much — we’re right there with you Carly.
Baker Boy — ‘Cool As Hell’
It’s all in the name. Arnhem land rapper Baker Boy dropped ‘Cool As Hell’ this January as a late contender for song of the summer, and its infectious warmth and slick, disco-driven beat have kept us listening well into the winter months.
‘Cool As Hell’ — a classic ‘Feelin’ Myself’ song about dancing with full-blown confidence — is a something of a victory lap. With last year’s ‘Mr La Di Da Di’ and ‘Black Magic’, Danzel Baker confirmed his place as a leading new voice in Australian hip-hop — by far our most innovative genre at the moment. Just as Slim Set are twisting UK grime with a Western Sydney bent, or Genesis Owusu tackles issues of cultural appropriation with ease, Baker Boy’s sound is unapologetically blak.
On ‘Cool As Hell’, he places the yidaki and bilma alongside slide guitars and hand claps, and he switches back-and-forth between English and Yolnu Matha, as if he’s dancing in circles around his contemporaries — and that’s before you watch the music video.
Body Type — ‘Uma’
From Georgia Wilkinson-Derums’ vocal yelp eight seconds in, ‘Uma’ is a home run. This is the coolest, baddest, most electrifying track Body Type have given us yet, and for the band that debuted with the famously perfect song ‘Ludlow’, that’s saying something.
The chorus of “All for one and one for all / All for one and one for the downfall” rings out like a battle cry for the post-#MeToo era –- fierce, unafraid and vibrating with energy.
Yeah the fucken’ girls.
Ali Barter — ‘UR A Piece Of Shit’
Ali Barter has been giving Australia some of its most biting indie rock music we’ve had in a long time, but never has she packed a stronger punch than with ‘Ur A Piece of Shit.’
It’s an ode to the fucked up parts that exist in everyone, and in parts it is incredibly macabre. But with sugary sweet vocals, Barter gives us a chant-worthy pre chorus — “We went from gateway drugs to class A drugs, pocket money to credit cards” — before giving us the entire ethos of the song in one beautifully blunt chorus opener: “I love you ‘cause you’re fucked.”
It also comes with one of the best music videos of the year, taking clear inspiration from ’90s teen movies like Heathers and Jawbreaker, both of which play with the same type of joyous darkness. Barter is unafraid to expose her secrets, flaws and shortcomings, and she wants you to know that she loves you regardless of yours. After all, she’s a piece of shit just like the rest of us.
FKA twigs — ‘Cellophane’
FKA twigs is one of few musicians you could genuinely consider a multi-media artist; to not see her dance or view her videos is to miss so much of the song. Twigs, a trained dancer, feels through her body. We often talk of strength in vulnerability, but we see and hear it across twigs’ music, as her movements enforce the iron strength within her misleadingly fragile voice and icy production.
‘Cellophane’ is the best of a devastatingly beautiful album. Written in the aftermath of her relationship with Robert Pattinson, it deals with the racist abuse hurled at her from Twilight fans (“they’re waiting/and hoping/I’m not enough”), and the weight dooming something regardless of how hard she tries (“Why don’t I do for you?/When all I do is for you?”). Its skeleton is an ever-descending piano key; its music video sees twigs in free-fall after she performs a pole-dance routine for a theatre.
Last year, twigs had six fibroid tumours removed from her body. Pole dancing doubled as a way to heal and reclaim strength — in ‘Cellophane’, that resilience is on display, reverberating through each note and every movement. Twigs’ vulnerability is wrapped up; a gift we don’t deserve.
Billie Eilish — ‘Bad Guy’
Billie Eilish’s long-awaited debut album is a funhouse of fantastical witch house arrangements, produced by herself and 21-year-old brother, Finneas. But it’s on ‘bad guy’ that the 17-year-old flexes her razor-sharp sense of humour and unravels an ASMR-inspired whispery flow, transforming her usually sweet and ethereal voice into an instrument unto itself.
The low hum of the bass is tempered by an incisive urgency, propelling the listener forward into the madness about to unfold. “So you’re a tough guy/Like it really rough guy/Just can’t get enough guy,” Eilish pokes sardonically before declaring, “I’m the bad guy, duh.”
The house-of-horrors inspired ‘bad guy’ isn’t just about the LA native’s nihilist teenage attitude, but a sly wink to her status as pop’s newly coronated A-lister: “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.”
Eilish is biting if not completely refreshing, and in encapsulating the rebellion du jour of hip-hop she highlights our desperation for imperfect authenticity in an industry fascinated with perfection.
— Kish Lal
Burial — ‘Claustro’
As far as song titles go, ‘Claustro’ might be positively ‘Burial-esque’ — of tight squeezes and dark, compromising spaces. Suitably, the song’s both a come-up and down, if you even know which way you’re facing.
The first song we’ve heard from the monumental UK producer in two years, ‘Claustro’ is a nostalgic blend of his trademark sounds, built with snippets of late ’90s garage, two-step beats and hissing vinyl sounds.
It’s a blisteringly fast song that, in its five minutes, loops completely different eras and worlds — MC yells, ’90s rave synths, difficult-to-decipher R&B samples.
Emotionally sparse, the song is among Burial’s best. It’s filled with enough for you to just hold onto (the clearest lyric is ‘You can’t hide a tear in your eye’), but just enough space to project what you need. Are you claustro, or are you just no longer used to such a tight hold?
ROSALÍA & J Balvin — ‘Con Altura (feat. El Guincho)’
The impact ROSALÍA made last year with her seminal second album El Mal Querer will go down in the history books.
In a time where Latin music has more of a worldwide spotlight than ever before, Rosalía danced her way in with her fusion of pop and flamenco without ever forgetting her Catalonian roots. Now, the Spanish superstar has marked a different direction in 2019, embracing the massive pop bangers that she was always destined to make but with a signature twist.
‘Con Altura’ was the first single she dropped this week, enlisting El Guincho’s subtle but punchy production and J Balvin’s effortless flow, and it has only continued to soar. Her vocals are fairy-like with a hint of witch as she switches between high and low like it’s no big deal.
J Balvin’s braggadocio and slight sleaze help anchor the song so it doesn’t float away too far, but remains aware that Rosalía is indeed the star. And, if this song is anything to go by, there is no height that she can’t handle.
Sharon Van Etten — ‘Seventeen’
Sharon Van Etten has always been a master at emotional literalism — Are We There, her beautiful and keenly-felt break-up record, only ever says what it means and means what it says.
But that stripped-back honesty is taken even further on ‘Seventeen’, a mournful paean to the passage of time that reduces an entire life and a way of living to five words. “I used to be seventeen,” Van Etten sings, over and over again, her voice eventually rising to a barely-suppressed howl of anguish and rage while a pounding refrain rises and falls around her like so much water.
But the real key to the exercise is Van Etten’s masterful control of tone. She never precisely locates where that anguish comes from. It’s a song, oddly enough, that juxtaposes great specificity with great vagueness. You can locate the precise place that Van Etten is singing from, but not exactly what she’s singing about, creating this loping, half-formed tune that somehow knows exactly where you live and what you want, without ever actually knowing anything about you.
Indie pop has never quite been this autobiographical, while also being so painfully, wonderfully vague. But that’s just the Van Etten genius.
Dua Lipa — ‘Don’t Start Now’
In 2018, Dua Lipa began a very profitable flirtation with dance and disco. With Calvin Harris at her side for ‘One Kiss’, and Diplo and Mark Ronson for ‘Electricity’, she struck gold — the rich melancholy of her vocals lending themselves perfectly to the dancefloor.
So in 2019, she decided to double down. ‘Don’t Start Now’, the lead single from her upcoming album Future Nostalgia (about as subtle an album title as being hit over the head by a disco ball) is ideal club fodder, with Dua giving a sparkling ‘fuck you’ to a lad across the floor.
Sure, Dua Lipa isn’t doing anything we haven’t heard before — but when the music is this fun, who the hell cares?