The Round-Up: The Best Songs of 2019 (So Far)

A little bit late this year due to real-world commitments, but here is my annual list of the best songs of the first half of 2019. Look for my honorable mention coming later in the week.

This year, instead of going with an actual ranking system, I’m going to going to break them up by tiers.

TIER 1: THE EARLY FAVORITE

Duugie
“Night Shift” (f/ Odunsi & Omagz)
Sojourn (Blac-Apollo)
Even though it features two of Nigeria’s most exciting young stars, somehow not a single American publication has covered this magical late-night jam. As we learned with “Drogba” — last summer’s song of this summer — the States are often slow to catch up with all the exciting sounds of the Continent. But still, “Night Shift” deserves better. Duggie’s gorgeous, flexible keys form a perfect platform for Odunsi (The Engine) and Omagz to do what they do best. Though the latter is driving the bus vocally, the former drops a stunning, low-key verse that is dripping with sauce and sensuality. If somebody is going to put out a better song than this, it’s going to be a classic.

TIER 2: THE CONTENDERS

03 Greedo
“Trap House” (f/ Shoreline Mafia)
Still Summer in the Projects (Alamo)
03 Greedo can say more with one line than most rappers can do on an album. And to steal the show on this airy banger, all he needs is “NO SHEEETS ONN TOPP MY BEAAHHHDD.” Aside from my favorite hook of the year, “Trap House” features a pair of watertight verses from the likely Angelinos of Shoreline Mafia and unsurprisingly tasty keys from the artist formerly known as DJ Mustard. The best song of the summer.

Lucinda Chua
“Feel Something”
Antidotes 1 (Self-Released)
So much about modern life is about our ache to connect with another. There are a million different ways to do it now, but nothing speaks to us like the visceral connection of being with someone real. The Londoner’s stirring, contemplative ode to that desire is one of the finest pieces of music that I’ve heard this year. It’s the kind of song that makes you stop in your tracks, look up, and appreciate the world around you. It definitely did that for me this year.

Colin Self
“Survival”
Siblings (RVNG Intl.)

In our world where civil rights are constantly under attack, the fight for survival for many members of the LGBTQ+ community is as urgent as it’s ever been. The multi-instrumentalist Colin Self focuses on this struggle on the spellbinding, “Survival.” With a soaring voice, Self cries out “in the night, I fear my life is growing short as I resist.” It’s so powerful to hear Self give a voice to a largely unheard population, though many more should be heeding his words.

Dawn Richard
“Vultures / Wolves”
New Breed (Our Dawn)

The centerpiece from her wonderful fifth LP could double as a pretty solid summation of the New Orleans visionary’s career. For six enthralling minutes, Richard lays her flaws bare, admitting that she “keeps getting in her own way,” without losing an ounce of the resilient spirit that permeates all of her music. It is beautiful, heartbreaking distillation of the Dawn Richard experience — one that I’ve enjoyed immensely over the last five years. 

XanMan
“Section 8”
Digital Single

I recently watched an interview with the DMV native, and what’s striking about it is how uninterested he seems to be in being famous or being a part of the mainstream rap zeitgeist. You can hear it in his music too. His bars simply refuse to adhere to any modicum of structure, veering in and out of the beat with reckless abandon. His YouTube is a treasure trove of rapid-fire, joyful street rap with clever melodies sprinkled in alongside his punched-in bars. His star continues to grow at a rapid rate, especially as he’s newly out of prison, and I can’t wait to see where he goes from here. 

Future
“Shotgun”
Save Me (Epic)

Though you could argue that his consistency has faded a touch since his unimpeachable 2014-2017 run, the Atlanta native can still hit heights* no one else can. For me, he’s at his best when he’s got maximum space, and Detail gives him a ton of room to fill with a spare beat, built around rolling percussion and tasteful keys. Special note must be made for the engineering touch of long-time collaborator Seth Firkins, who passed away in 2017. Nobody else treated Future’s voice with quite the light touch of Firkins, and “Shotgun” is a testament to his masterful craft.

*depths

Ariana Grande
“ghostin” (acoustic version)
thank u, next (Republic)

The 26 year-old has been through unimaginable public tragedy in the last few years. A terrorist attack at her show in Manchester, a messy public divorce, and the death of her ex-fiancé Mac Miller. And though she’s touched on all of these things at times in previous music, she’s never been more direct than on this stunning goodbye to Miller. Wrapped in layers of warm, surging synths (which, of course, sample Miller’s “2009”), Grande mourns his loss while apologizing to her current partner for struggling to get over it. It’s absolutely heartbreaking and a testament to Grande’s bravery and empathy as a singer and a writer.

Jai Paul
“Do You Love Her Now”
Do You Love Her Now / He (4AD)

After seven years away, the mercurial Londoner returned with two new tracks and an updated version of the album he worked so hard on, which leaked without his consent a few months before its release date. Along with the music, Paul wrote about how much that leak hurt him, which is instructive of the dangerous way modern music fans demand control of their favorite artists’ careers.

The singles were also a reminder of his special talent and singular sound, which combines elements of soul, funk, and R&B and runs them through his unique worldview. It’s unclear whether more is coming, but with Jai Paul, you’ve just got to savor what you can get.

Kevin Abstract
“Mississippi”
ARIZONA BABY (Question Everything)

The San Antonio native put his acclaimed Brockhampton project on hold long enough to craft a worthy follow-up to 2016’s exquisite “American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story.” Its best moment is its most introspective, as the 22 year-old digs deep into his relationships with his friend, a boyfriend, and crucially, himself. Abstract’s best solo work always feels cut from the same cloth as Frank Ocean’s classic “Nostalgia, Ultra,” and “Mississippi” is no exception.

Kim Petras
“Sweet Spot”
Clarity (BunHead)
Nobody is making better pure pop in 2019 than Kim Petras. Katy Perry and Taylor Swift would have killed to put out most of the nine (9!) new singles she’s already dropped this year, which are absolutely jammed with meaty hooks and her obvious star appeal. Though her continued collaboration with Dr. Luke casts a severe damper on things, it’s hard not to appreciate the importance of a trans woman who is making unabashedly sexy pop music for the masses. It’s unclear just how much influence Luke has had on these songs and if he will continue to be involved, but musically and culturally, it’s hard to ignore what the German-born artist is doing.

Orville Peck
“Hope to Die”
Pony (Sub Pop)
The masked Nevada crooner’s revelatory debut is finally starting to get the widespread coverage it deserves. An absolute one-off in modern music, Peck makes unabashedly camp country that sounds like 1962 but feels like 2022. And though there’s no shortage of melodrama on Pony, but he really outdoes himself on its penultimate song — a preening, posing powerhouse performance that somehow recalls a young Morrissey in chaps. Sign me the fuck up.

Big Thief
“Open Desert”
U.F.O.F. (4AD)

The centerpiece of the Brooklyn quartet’s lauded third LP serves up a heavy dose of “Ghosts of the Great Highway” vibes, pairing Adrianne Lenker’s evocative vocals with a haunting, open-string heavy arpeggiated guitars. Though its not clear what Lenker is on about, the atmosphere is laid on thick and leaves one hell of an imprint.

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