The 15 Best Songs Of 2019, So Far
Did your favourite make the cut?
If you’d told us six months ago that the biggest song of the year would be a country stomper delivered by an unknown rapper whose only previous claim to fame was (maybe) running a Nicki Minaj stan account, we probably would’ve had some questions. But this is 2019, and everything is up for grabs.
The first half of the year has been a bumper year for music. We’ve seen the return of some big hitters — like Flume, Banks, and Carly Rae Jepsen — and we’ve also seen newbies continue to flex their muscles — like Brisbane’s Sweater Curse and Sydney’s Body Type.
So, now that we’ve officially passed 2019’s halfway point, we asked our most obsessive music writers to have a look back over the last six months and pull out what songs they think stand above the rest. Dive in.
Four Tet — ‘Teenage Birdsong’
Kieran Hebden has emerged as this decade’s electronic music hero for people who don’t necessarily like dancing. Sure, much of Four Tet’s output is steeped in the spirit of ‘90s house and built for humid dancefloors, but he’s also the guy you recommend to clubbing sceptics: “Look how tasteful electronic music can be!”
This chameleonic quality has made Hebden a pretty big deal. He’s certainly among the lowest-key performers to regularly sell out concert halls and headline festivals. It took a lot of purposeful work to reach that level, including nine studio albums and a steady supply of exceptional singles and remixes.
Hebden’s 2019 perfectly illustrates both sides of musical personality. ‘Only Human’, released in March under the KH alias, flipped the vocals from Nelly Furtado’s ‘Afraid’ into a surging house bomb. It started life as an unofficial, Shazam-defying edit heard at Four Tet shows and ended up on Ministry Of Sound.
‘Teenage Birdsong’, on the other hand, is the kind of Four Tet track you can enjoy all alone. The gently propulsive groove, shimmering synths and ear-pricking flute loop make for Spotify gold, as evidenced by its two million plays since April. In lesser hands, those elements would be a fast-track to chill playlist hell — but this, after all, is Kieran Hebden.
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. We can’t to hear what he does on his debut album, due August.
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
Sweater Curse – ‘(Hear You)’
Brisbane trio Sweater Curse have been bubbling under the radar for some time now. With a sold-out headlining tour under their belts, as well as a national run with WAAX booked for this coming August, there’s never been a better time to invest yourself in their immersive, introspective indie-rock.
‘(Hear You)’ serves as a complement — even a sequel of sorts — to last year’s ‘Can’t See You Anymore,’ both of which are at home on the band’s See You EP. While ‘Can’t See You Anymore’ was about coming to the conclusion that a relationship must… well, come to its conclusion, ‘(Hear You)’ deals with the aftermath.
Vocalist/bassist Monica Sottile plays off her head-voice range to drive the chorus melody home, while guitarist Chris Lanenberg switches between jangly noodling and pedal-stomping shoegaze to accentuate the shifting moods the song creates. It’s all brought together by drummer Rei Bingham, whose tom rolls and accented cymbal smashes guide the song’s various turns along the way.
There’s a lot of moving parts for what is ostensibly a three-minute song by three people, and it’s for this very reason you should really be paying close attention to what Sweater Curse are doing. Hear them.
— David James Young
Flume, JPEGMAFIA — ‘How to Build a Relationship’
The Hi, This is Flume mixtape flexed Flume’s breakbeat credentials after spending the best part of this decade producing triple j-ready pop. In the mixtape’s jagged centrepiece, ‘How to Build a Relationship’, the producer teamed up with rising Baltimore glitch rapper JPEGMAFIA, known affectionately as Peggy.
Peggy’s verse on ‘How to Build a Relationship’ isn’t about anything other than his bad attitude; he drops several obscure wrestling references, sees through fakes like Bran from Game of Thrones, and tells vloggers to piss off.
What is remarkable is how his sordid brags meld with Flume’s shuddering beat; Peggy’s flow remains steady while the asynchronous boom-clap drums are determined to wrangle him off. The challenge rises when Flume drops the beat before double-timing, then triple-timing laser beam synths, but Peggy keeps up comfortably, letting out an emphatic “FUCK!” at its conclusion.
The producer-MC duel of talent is giddy fun to listen to, and one of the best collaborations of the year so far.
Banks — ‘Gimme’
Jillian Banks has always had a flair for the dramatic, but her dark electropop has never sounded as severe as on ‘Gimme’ — a song about seduction that comes off like a threat.
The lead single from her upcoming album III might be her poppiest — yet least intelligible — song to date. Banks delivers most of ‘Gimme’ in an odd, under-enunciated drawl, pulling the listener in closer, making little effort to be understood… until she ends each verse with an emphatic ‘you can call me that bitch!’
After spending two albums longing for self-empowerment, singing about romantic conflict, ‘Gimme’ leaves that all behind, and strips her music down to its bones. Hudson Mohawke’s production, too, is brutally simple: a 10-note bass riff twists around the whole song. His drums hit hard, his synths glitch and stutter around Banks’ voice in the chorus: “Gimme, gimme what I want, what I deserve / Gimme, gimme it…”.
There’s no past, no future, only the pure desire of the moment. ‘Gimme’ is a song that’s about as subtle as a hammer, but with a vocal presence that’s slippery, enigmatic, and daresay, dangerous. Watch out for III — Banks refuses to be contained.
Ariana Grande — ‘Needy’
When Ariana Grande announced she’d release another album five months after Sweetener, it was easy to be nervous. It was too much, too soon; but so had Grande’s past two years, enduring more trauma by 25 than many experience in double that.
But we had no right to fear: thank u, next is a stunning album — a tight 12 tracks that float between resentment and gratitude, light and dark, trap and future-thinking pop. And it’s second track ‘Needy’ is the perfect synthesis of where Grande stands in 2019, and a counterpoint to Dangerous Woman standout ‘Greedy’.
Where the latter demands a lover’s attention with few flirtatious words and an inviting beat, ‘Needy’ examines that flex of confidence for what it really is — a front. On ‘Needy’, Grande apologises for being difficult. She lists her flaws over a fairytale-like trill before the chorus, where she accepts that while dependency might not be a Happily Ever After, but there’s still happiness to be found on the way to something stronger. “Tell me how good it feels to be needed“, she sings.
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.
Cub Sport feat. Mallrat — ‘Video’
Across three albums, Cub Sport have blossomed and transformed in a myriad of ways. A lot of it has to do with frontman Tim Nelson, who began the band at the start of the decade as a twee indie-pop vehicle in which he would hide behind a piano keyboard and sprinkle metaphors over his songs.
In 2019, Nelson stands front and centre, often shirtless and entirely empowered within the performance space. “I think I know myself,” he sings on ‘Video’, and you unequivocally believe it’s coming from a place of absolute truth.
This highlight from January’s self-titled LP entirely leaves the Cub Sport of old behind — it’s all electronic beats, layered synthesizers and heavily-treated AutoTune vocals. The band have made a point of collectively progressing into this new sound as a collective, supporting and enhancing Nelson’s vision in the meantime. The musical direction fits the song, which lyrically comes to terms with self-love and self-confidence in a newfound sense of clarity.
A cameo from fellow Queenslander Mallrat offers a mirrored perspective: “When times get tougher than leather,” she promises, “I’m gonna love you forever.” Sometimes, that’s something we all need to hear from somebody — shirtless popstar or not.
— David James Young
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 she has 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 playful 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.
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
Lizzo — ‘Truth Hurts’
Lizzo is something of a musical gymnast: she dances, sings, plays the flute and twerks, often all at once. ‘Truth Hurts’ is the perfect encapsulation of all her talents and her live performance at the BET Awards earned her a coveted standing ovation from pop-veteran Rihanna.
(And before you start, yes: the original of ‘Truth Hurts’ was released back in 2017 — but the song arguably lay dormant until this year, when it was released on the deluxe version of her album Cuz I Love You, and bolstered by a feature in the Netflix film Someone Great. For all intents and purposes, this song belongs in 2019.)
An ode to loving yourself in the face of a breakup, ‘Truth Hurts’ follows the Minneapolis’ pop stars continued ethos of self-love and empowerment. It would reek a little of pandering if it wasn’t for Lizzo’s earnest social media presence, including a recent painful and public admission she’s been struggling with her mental health.
‘Truth Hurts’ is successful not only in its arrangement, production and biting lyricism but mostly in its honesty. “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100 percent that bitch,” Lizzo sings affirmingly, adding, “Even when I’m crying crazy.”
If you ever need a reminder of who you are, put ‘Truth Hurts’ on repeat.
— 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?
Allday — ‘Protection’
The rapper-singer type has been breadcrumbing the release of his third album, Starry Night Over the Phone, with a slew of singles. So far we’ve heard the dreamy ‘Wonder Drug,’ the late-night neon glow of ‘Lungs’ and the unexpected Veronicas team-up ‘Restless.’
The pick of the lot so far, however, would have to be ‘Protection.’ That’s not to discredit any other tracks — they’re all great, which is what makes ‘Protection’ even more impressive than it normally would be. Over a pristine beat from LA producers Vonmering and YOG$, our protagonist finds himself in the wake of another lost love as he attempts to pick up the pieces and reassemble his life.
It’s not exactly alien territory for the man born Tom Gaynor, but that sense of familiarity is what drives his efforts even further over the line. The washed out math-rock guitar loop that the song is centred on is a fresh take on the synth layering that has defined most of his work in the past, and Gaynor’s knack for blending confident rap flows with intrinsic and memorable melodies factors in here in a big way.
Five years on from his debut, Allday has still unquestionably got it.
— David James Young
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.