The Best Music of 2019
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Welcome to post-Christmas but pre-New Year, the time where about 50% of us have to go to work in spite of no work being done, and for a lot of us, that involves being forced to still listen to Christmas music even though Christmas is over. (I do have to go to work, but my work now has ZERO Christmas music besides the occasional "Jingle Bells" and "I Had A Little Dreidel" from kid's sing-along, god bless every one of us.)
Now that the tinsel glaze has worn off and the eggnog has settled queasily in your stomach, you've probably realized once again that Christmas music mostly sucks, "most" of course excepting Mariah Carey. The only reason any of us still listen to not-Mariah Carey is that most people associate it with the actual best part of Christmas, which is when you're anticipating Christmas and it hasn't actually happened yet. Pre-Christmas is the time of year where you can just eat a lot of cookies and think about how great Christmas is going to be without having to deal with the reality of what Christmas is, which is inflated to such an over-the-top point that it's impossible for anyone to actually have a satisfyingly good one without feeling some lingering sense that you haven't really Christmas'd hard enough and should probably spend more money next year.
Anyway, now it's post-Christmas, and you're in my time (Cranky Told-You-So Jew Time), and you need some better tunes to listen to. Luckily for you, I kept in my draft folder all year long notes to myself about the very best new music released this year, and here are my top picks, with an embedded playlist at the end to for you to listen to by putting on the new headphones you got for Christmas and decided were too much trouble to exchange for something you needed more.
Editor's Note: I did not include the great religious epiphany our lady and savior Beyoncé bestowed upon us in Homecoming because technically it was a video version concert that didn't happen in 2019 and was mostly music that wasn't released in 2019. Also, the album itself doesn't really work without the full video, because the visuals and spectacle are what make the whole thing as epic as it is. Homecoming was truly one of the greatest musical things to happen to me this year and everyone should watch it, but it didn't fit the criteria for this list. Also, comparing Beyoncé to mere mortals is, as always, unfair.
thank u, next - Ariana Grande
Honestly, bless this entire concept of a breakup song. Bless the idea that sometimes breakups happen not because anyone's a bad person, but because people aren't ready for relationships, or need to work on themselves, or just aren't suited to each other. Bless the idea that you can break up with someone and and still feel fondly towards them but know being apart is for the best. Bless the idea that you can and should end relationships and not just be in them because of inertia or because there's no real reason to justify a split and the other person hasn't done anything wrong. Be your own significant other! Be good to other people by not needing to keep them around when you don't actually want them! This is the energy we should be taking from 2019 and into 2020.
Album: WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO - Billie Eilish (Standout Songs: bad guy, wish you were gay, i love you)
Every generation needs a Fiona Apple, by which I mean every generation needs a doe-eyed, emotive, smoky-voiced ingenue who is at once both wise beyond her years and very, very young. Every generation needs an artist who writes grim, mysterious music best suited for walking through foggy moors, making completely unsubtle digs at the patriarchy, and spurning the advances of much older men, possibly because your heart is pledged to a tragically deceased boyfriend. And I'm very glad that kids these days have found theirs in than me has found theirs in Billie Eilish, because I thoroughly enjoy her, which means that in spite of constantly thinking about how much better pop music was when I was younger, I'm not totally over the hill and irrelevant quite yet.
Anything more I say about Billie Eilish will sound very "how do you do, fellow kids", so I'm not going to bother, just know that she is a fantastic, intelligent, very gifted new talent, you should listen to her, and also, remember that I'm still totally "cool" and "with it".
Stay High - Brittany Howard
What a gift Brittany Howard's voice is. Her flannel-warm vocals have been reason enough for me to listen to a lot of Alabama Shakes over the years, even though they've always been, for me personally, anyway, good but not the kind of good that keeps me coming back for more, more the kind of good where I often reflect upon their existence fondly.
I wish that in her new solo venture I could hear more of Brittany Howard's voice, but on a lot of tracks I tend to lose it under layers of production - though it should be said I have an extremely low threshold for finding music overproduced. But that album, in spite of my nitpicks, does contain this, one of my very favorite songs that came out this year. Stay High is an uncomplicated, achingly sweet gem. It's an ode to the sustaining power of love between people who commit to struggle together through life in the hardest, most unwelcoming places, and what a solace that love can be. It's like if A Chair For My Mother had came in musical form.
Sorry for that last comparison, librarians gotta librarian.
Album: Dedicated - Carly Rae Jepsen
(Standout Songs: Now That I Found You, Too Much, Feels Right ft. Electric Guest)
Oh, Carly, how can I even begin to describe you and all that you are.
First of all, if you have, by some great misfortune, arrived here without listening to the flawless pop music masterpieces that are previous albums Emotion and Emotion Side B, leave right now and listen to them, on shuffle repeat, for a month, as they deserve.
Carly Rae Jepsen is pop music. There's no other way to describe her but the absolute purest distillation of the entire genre. She's joyous, upbeat, and wryly self-aware. Her voice is effervescent. Her sound skews younger, even though she herself isn't young compared to the Billie Eilish's of the world (a whole 34 years old!). She doesn't try to pretend, as "young" as her sound is, though, to be something she's not - instead she brings a sound normally relegated to teenagers and fills it with lyrics about honest, messy, confusing adult relationships. She's unapologetic about being an overwhelmingly bubbly, sunshiney presence. She is a master of her craft and an absolute delight.
Dedicated both is and isn't a follow-up to its Emotion predecessors. It's much looser and less meticulous than Emotion, for which she wrote hundreds of songs and whittled them down to the absolute best (and it shows), but has the exact same signature Carly sound and joy about it. There's more stylistic variety than Emotion. She sticks by what she knows works for her on some tracks (like Now That I Found You and Too Much) and ventures farther afield in others. In some cases it works (her collaboration with Electric Guest is probably my favorite track), some of which doesn't (the lower-tempo disco number Julian kind of fizzles for me).
Still, even the "bad" songs should be taken with a grain of salt - it's Carly Rae Jepsen, after all, and her "bad" is a million times better than most artists' best. She's the pop artist I most use as a reference for what other pop artists are like, and when I say "like Carly Rae Jepsen", what I mean is pop music, in its peak form and greatest glory.
So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings - Caroline Polachek
Truly, whomst among us has not felt this way towards another person at some point in their lives and needed a song to express this exact emotion. I described this song on Twitter as "Kate Bush and Carly Rae Jepsen had a baby", and I stand by it. This song is about a person who is hot both physically and because of who they are as a person, they're not able to be in the same place as you, and it's making you sad that you can't make out with their face. It's pop-y and a little witch-y and effortlessly cool. What a great song. What a great concept.
Album: The Highwomen - The Highwomen
(Standout Songs: Crowded Table, If She Ever Leaves Me, My Only Child)
A lovely discovery I made this year, right before this album came out, was that I actually really, really love country music. It turns out that like most genres of music, it's rare that anyone ever hates everything in it, they just haven't heard the parts of it that work for them.
The parts of country music that don't work for me are the current, cheesy pop with a twang iteration of country. What really, really doesn't work for me is the songs where men in stetsons sing about their trucks and beers and their good woman cooking at home and their emotional constipation. The parts of country that work for me are the older stuff, especially the stuff that women had a hand in either writing or bringing to life, the stuff that's raw and honest and full of epic ballads and tight harmonies and twangy strings - you know, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. (My personal favorite country tunes can be found here, if you care.)
Anyway, fuck corporate and men's country music, is what I'm getting at.
This album was made by four very talented women (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires) who formed a supergroup to create what is probably the greatest country album of all time as determined by me, a person who knows nothing about anything and has no business making such a grand and sweeping declaration. This album is pure, unapologetic emotion from start to finish with not a hint of the overly-polished country hits of recent memory, instead hewing much closer to country greats like Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Rondstat. It has songs that wreck you (My Only Child, Cocktail and a Song), progressive anthems for a better tomorrow (Highwomen, Redesigning Women, If She Ever Leaves Me, and my personal favorite on the entire album, Crowded Table). It will make you chuckle, it will make you cheer, and it will make you cry. The harmonies are on point and tight as hell. If you don't "like" country music, you'll probably like this album. If you like country music, you'll probably like this album. This album is what people who love country and try to explain why describe without realizing they're describing it, and it is absolutely perfect.
Album: Wasteland, Baby! - Hozier
(Standout Songs: Nina Cried Power ft. Mavis Staples, Almost (Sweet Music), Shrike)
I was on the phone with my twin brother this fall, discussing what my upcoming plans for the next couple weeks were, and I said "oh, and I have this concert I'm going to at the Wang Theater."
"You what," he, a person who has met me before and in general shares my opinion that people in groups of more than a dozen are almost always too loud, said. "Like, as in concert, you mean the thing where a person plays music and you're in an audience of a couple thousand people and you listen to it?"
"Yep," I said.
"Who are you?" He asked.
The answer is, apparently, a concert person, but only a) for very specific concerts of a very specific size and tone, and b) the next concert I go to I'm going to have to bring noise cancelling headphones because don't worry, everyone, I haven't totally and fundamentally changed my personality. But I went to see Hozier and I had a great time in spite of the terrible tension headache starting in my ears for the next couple of hours after from clamping my hands against them so hard.
Hozier ran away with the competition of my most-listened artist this year, probably because it's been two months since the concert and I haven't been able to stop listening to him since. It's become annoying to even myself, but something in me feels compelled to go back every time I try to move on. And yet despite all the time I've spent with him gorgeously yodeling in my eardrums, I find I struggle with how to describe him to anyone who hasn't heard him. He's an Irish singer-songwriter and a lot of his stuff can be dark, but it's not all that sad, just sort of macabre in sensibility. It would be tempting to then classify him as another mopey Damien Rice redux, but Hozier's much, much better and less navel gaze-y than that. Hozier is also a much, much better guitarist, and likes to layer in a lot of bluegrass and roots swagger and what sound like very difficult and impressive guitar riffs. (At least, I assume they're impressive. I can't figure out a guitar despite many efforts, so everything to me sounds impressive.) His lyrics are dense and very hard to learn but also full of the kind of complex and deft symbolism and allusion and sustained themes mixed in with clever social commentary that makes me think his English teachers probably loved him.
And what I'm always struck with, while listening to Hozier, is how narrow most music, particularly sung or written by men, is in subject. ("Who cares about men, really?" was a running theme for me both personally and musically this year, apparently, and I'm not mad at it.) But Hozier fearlessly explores concepts like "what if I wrote a love song but it's about a bird that murders its prey by crucifying it on thorny underbrush" (Shrike) or "a love song, but about how the sun is going to explode and kill us all, and also I'm gonna cite the work of a famous female astrophysicist as the reason we should fuck" (No Plan) or "what if I ignored love songs altogether and instead Mavis Staples and I teamed up to fight fascism and also crime" (Nina Cried Power).
Wasteland, Baby! is his second album, contains all these songs and more, and, in my opinion, is far superior to his self-titled first. Hozier's much more settled into and confident his own voice and how he wants to use it, whereas his first album felt a bit like a scrapbook or mix CD of him putting his spin on all his favorite artists and trying to emulate what he particularly liked about their styles. That was a very good album, but this is a great album.
He also has a very nice head of hair that he managed to wear down the entire concert and it didn't get frizzy once (how?!?!?), and that in and of itself is a talent, but not a musical one.
Raising Hell - Kesha ft. Big Freedia
Since discovering Big Freedia thanks to the absolute banger she collaborated with Lizzo on last summer (and realizing she's the voice in Beyoncé's Formation), it hasn't been made satisfyingly clear to me why every song isn't a collaboration with Big Freedia. Since her release of Rainbow in 2017, it's also been completely unclear to me why we, as a culture, have been sleeping on the massive talent that is Kesha, besides that men are monsters.
Kesha and Big Freedia teaming up for a song is exactly as fun, irreverent, and lacking in fucks to give as was to be expected, all mixed with lyrics that sound like a party anthem while low-key delivering Kesha's eternal thesis she asks in her music over and over again: what's so bad about not always being good?
Ain't Together - King Princess
Easily my top track of 2018 was, without even the slightest of competition, 1950 by King Princess. I think I'm probably not cool enough to totally "get" everything she puts out, but she's definitely on my radar of new artists I like to keep an eye on. Like all of King Princess' music, Ain't Together is cool and quirky, but not in an affected way, more in, like, an art school sort of way where it's a little annoying and pretentious but a lot endearing and fun.
Also, as not a queer woman I cannot personally attest to this song (which is about the difficulty of defining when friendship is or isn't the kind of friendship that involves sleeping together, and when that friendship + sleeping together = a relationship), being the most lesbian of lesbian love songs. What I can say is that like 95% of my friends are women who date women, and I've spent years as a fully grown adult listening to more "how do I tell if they're just being friendly or like me like me" than I have since middle school, and between that and all the confessional "omg me too" comments on her Youtube videos from all the baby queers, I think it's safe to say that King Princess may have hit upon a theme with this slow jam that's universal but resonates particularly well in her own particular community.
How to disappear - Lana Del Rey
I once described Lana Del Rey - and I stand by this assessment - as reminding me a lot of a bath bomb. She's the kind of thing I see other people listening to and talking about and I think she sounds amazing. I really believe I'm going to get into her, but then I actually try her, and most of her music is just a swirling and confusing mass of glittery color and I'm eventually sitting in an overly-perfumed soup of a bath with glitter clinging to my every orifice being like how did I get here and what about this entire concept led me to believe this was ever going to turn out well and what is even happening and is there glitter up my nose now????.
This is all to say that I made a really, really concerted effort to listen to this year's Lana del Rey album, Norman Fucking Rockwell, which pretty much every other outlet has rated as the album of the year, and I... don't get it. As previously stated, I'm someone who likes their music production, like their bathing experiences, clean and simple, and Lana del Rey seems to delight in sonic perfumery and layering computer distortions and sounds on top of each other. I kept listening knowing that there were kernels of good melodies under there, but unable to find them and so eventually I gave up. This was dumb of me, because I almost missed this song and only went back and found it because it appeared on a friends' Instagram story.
This is the Lana del Rey my heart actually wants, the reason I thought I wanted to listen to her whole album in the first place. This is the past-her-prime movie star of a song who can't quite let go of her former vintage aesthetic, battered and beaten by the world and somehow all the sweeter and more reflective for it. This song makes me ache and want a cigarette and to put on a record player and want to listen to a lot of back episodes of You Must Remember This.
Old Town Road - Remix - Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus
I've got two ears and a heart, don't I?
Album: Cuz I Love You - Lizzo
(Songs: Cuz I Love You, Juice, Truth Hurts)
(Extremely hipster voice) Actually, I've loved Lizzo since 2016, before loving her was cool.
The reason you've probably heard a lot of people fighting like this over when they discovered Lizzo and who discovered her first is because she's low-key been around producing jams for forever, and it was finally this year we all collectively went "wait, she's really fucking good?", and we're all trying to pretend it didn't take us this long to figure out, because, you know, embarrassing. (But it really didn't take me this long to figure out! It just took this long for everyone to agree with me! Check when I followed her on Instagram if you don't believe me! There's no un-douchey way to stress this.)
I chose the three biggest hit songs from her album as the standouts somewhat arbitrarily, but I really could have chosen any other three and been just as happy. Jerome? A sing-along delight. Tempo? Makes me feel like I might kind of be able to dance, sort of. Soulmate? HELL YEAH.
What Lizzo's album has going for it that no other album this year has is the sheer breadth and mastery behind it. Lizzo is an obviously talented and dedicated musician who has studied her craft. She can seamlessly slip from rapping to theatrical, almost Dreamgirls-like showtunes soul, to raw R&B soul, and then back to bubblegum pop twerking, each with equal levels of confidence and mastery. What makes it all cohesive is her own, very specific, indefinable Lizzo-ness. Each track is hers, and can only be hers, and could never belong to or even be compared to anyone else (except, on occasion, Prince, which is in and of itself a compliment). They burst with love for herself, and her art, and her love for everyone listening, exuding a sincerely held and impossible to fake belief that everyone is as deserving of happiness and love and being in the spotlight as she is. It shouldn't feel as radical and affirming as it does, and yet, it does, and it's something we all sorely need, and we are all so very, very lucky to have finally let ourselves find her.
Light On - Maggie Rogers and Love You For A Long Time - Maggie Rogers
Much like Billie Eilish satisfied all of our need for Fiona Apple 2.0, Maggie Rogers arrived on the scene this year with a new album and a new EP, bringing us all Sheryl Crow, the Remix. They're both very good, though because I was always a much more Fiona Apple person than a Sheryl Crow person, I didn't give her full "best album" honors. Instead, my two top songs from each, both of which bring the same California sunshine and sepia toned everything windows rolled down with your bare feet getting sand on the car floor sensibility. I'm especially fond of Love You For A Long Time, the perfect summer love song that's like a spiritual descendant Katy Perry's Teenage Dream, but with actual substance.
The Bones - Maren Morris
Between all the Highwomen (which Maren Morris is a member of) binging this year, along with the fact that she released a version of this song as a duet sung with Hozier and my binging of him, it was inevitable that every available algorithm would tell me I had to listen to this song, and damn but if they didn't get me good. This song is like... you know when you see those extremely cheesy wedding videos that look like music videos and you're torn between being cynical because there's not actually anything all that earth-shakingly romantic about Tess and Steve who met because they're both accountants, but also being a little choked up because love is beautiful? Anyway, this song sounds like the background to one of those wedding videos, but the good kind where you happy cry without guilt and the couple doesn't get divorced and there's no cynicism whatsoever.
Everybody Wants You - Red Hearse
I know nothing about Jack Antonoff except that at one point I think he was dating Lena Dunham and then he cheated on her with Lorde (cheating is bad but good for him, to be honest), he's involved in making and producing a lot of pop stuff, and Red Hearse is his newest project. This song is a smooth, effortlessly chill earworm with tight production that makes me miss the soundtrack from The OC - where between that and the Veronnica Mars soundtrack I used to find all my good music and new artists - immensely.
If I Can't Have You - Shawn Mendes
Sorry, not sorry. Listen, Shawn Mendes so tightly compressed and manufactured he's like a lab grown diamond, most of his music is dumb, and yet this is undeniably a bop.
I will not be made to feel guilty about this.
Album: Sucker Punch - Sigrid
(Standout Songs: Don't Feel Like Crying, In Vain, Don't Kill My Vibe)
1 cup Robyn
2 tbsp Carly Rae Jepsen
Juice of 1 Imogen Heap, strained
Betty Who and/or Spice Girls (to taste)
Simmer on stove until all ingredients are soft and tender. Then, with immersion blender, blend until smooth. For best results, serve on days when strongly in need of an infusion of subtle yet unmistakable girl power.
Please be advised that this album will make you feel like you can punch through a wall and jump into a brightly colored cartoon teenage wonderland, and also that whatever you are doing at that moment you are absolutely and 110% pulling off, even if such confidence is tragically undeserved.
Dance Monkey - Tones and I
I take Lyfts to and from work, and I have learned a lot of things from my Lyft drivers. I have, for example, learned that "Julia" is a very popular name in Brazil, and if a Lyft driver comes from the next town over which is about 50% Brazilian immigrants, they'll get very excited about me and my existence, which is nice. I've also learned that a surprising number of people listen to NPR, and those who don't often have hit music stations on, probably because a reason you can list as a rider for giving five stars is "good music" and they figure that'll appeal to the general public the most.
This little ditty has played on those stations a LOT, and it's kind of a bop. It's the only song this year that I heard on the radio and went "I should track that down" for reasons that were not to make fun of it later. I know nothing about the artist, who is apparently jut one person from Australia, but I do know that this song sounds like if Amy Winehouse's voice sang Sia's music, and those are two great tastes that taste great together.
This Life - Vampire Weekend
As a proud practitioner and admirer of twee, I believe that tweeness has to be used wisely and well, like a potent aftershave. Vampire Weekend are much more liberal users of twee, but I feel on this track they really nailed the essence when twee works best, which is when dealing with a certain level of first world nihilism. This track is about a truly terrible person bumping up against the self-awareness needed to realize how easy their life has been and how they have squandered that privilege with terrible behavior. But, in spite of this epiphany that just might make them bearable, they're firmly committed to remaining in their pastel-colored and bougie world. It uses twee to great sarcastic effect and is, as the kids these days might say, very much a 2019 vibe.