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.

TIER 3: THE BEST OF THE REST

A.A. Bondy
“Fentanyl Freddy”
Enderness (Fat Possum)

Though I’m not super familiar with the mopey Louisiana native’s back catalog, “Enderness” really got under my skin this year. Bondy cleverly injects synths and drum machines into his folk-rooted sound, framing his desolate voice with rich, vivid moods. There are a number of standouts I could have chosen, but this ghostly rumination sits just above the other thanks to its misty keyboards and heartrending subject matter.

Default Genders
“sophie (emphasis mine)” (f/ Beth Sawlts)
main pop girl 2019

Usually when it’s hard to pick a standout song, it’s because an album is really cohesive and zeroes in on a specific sound. James Brooks’ wondrous second LP has the opposite problem, hitting on so many different kinds of sounds from breakbeats to gooey pop to lo-fi drone. “Sophie” is soft and wistful yearner that sees Brooks imagining a problem-free life that will never, ever be theirs.

NoCap
“Ghetto Angels”
The Backend Child (self-released)

The Mobile native’s crushing “Ghetto Angels” isn’t a rap song; it’s a blues song. And a damn potent one at that. Over rolling percussion and gospel keys, the 20 year-old croaks out crushing stories of love and loss, laying out the sad fate of way too many of his friends. It is heartbreaking, but hopefully their memory can push NoCap to fulfill his monster potential and continue to glorify their influence on his life.

Dan Bodan (2014) publicity

Dan Bodan
“I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes…)”
Digital Single

The Berlin-based singer-songwriter’s voice has always had a timeless timbre to it. So it’s no surprise that he knocks this jazz standard from 1939 out of the park. Its careful, stepwise piano melody provides an ideal canvas for Bodan to smear his evocative vocals over. Hopefully, we’ll hear more from him this year.

Chief Keef
“Ain’t Gonna Happen”
GloToven (Glo Gang)

There are some other established artists who have consistently made surprising, unexpected choices, but few have experimented as successfully as the 23 year-old in recent years. On this weepy jewel from his excellent collaborative LP with Zaytoven, Keef pours his heart out over Zay’s trademark, nimble piano playing. “Face dried up, from of all of tears I done cried up,” he laments, wondering why he’s been put through so much while reveling in the man all those tragedies has made him.

The Tallest Man on Earth
“Hotel Bar”
I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream. (Rivers/Birds)

“Hotel Bar” finds the Swede sitting by himself on the road, wondering how the people around him are feeling and what will become of him. Though the loneliness is palpable, there is hope pouring out of this track. And it’s not just the affirmative chorus. It’s the triumphant horns, the dramatic pianos, and his evocative falsetto that punctuates the bridge beautifully, providing the sweetest moment of relief. Things will be fine, indeed.

Lana Del Rey
“Doin’ Time”
Digital Single

If you grew up in California in the 90’s, it would be just about impossible not to know at least 6 or 7 Sublime songs. Whether you were in the back seat of your boy Corey’s Jeep, at a school dance, or waiting for your prescription at Walgreen’s, Bradley Nowell’s perma-chill tenor would be forever transported into your eardrums. Evidently, the same was true in Westchester County, which is where a young Elizabeth Grant was soaking up the same low-key vibes. Who knew?

Holly Herndon
“Last Gasp”
PROTO (4AD)
The San Francisco-based drags you deep down the silicon coated rabbit hole that is modern life. Armed with an “AI Baby” and a gaggle of inspiring collaborators, Herndon considers our robo-future and wonders if we’re a hell of a lot closer to singularity than we think. Its final track — the aptly-named “Last Gasp” — features possibly the clearest example of humanity on the project: Herdnon’s mostly-unobstructed voice. That said, it’s unclear whether she’s singing from the perspective of a robot or a lover, which, of course, is kind of the point, right?

Skepta
“Bullet from a Gun”
Ignorance is Bliss (Boy Better Know)
How do you follow up a watershed LP? If you’re Skepta, it’s easy. Just keep doing the shit you’ve been doing. On his fifth LP, the London legend keeps new ingredients to a minimum, instead opting to focus on his lycra-tight verses and off-kilter, self-produced grime beats. On “Bullet from a Gun,” Skeppy embraces his big brother role, doling out words of wisdom and reminding everyone that if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will.

Tierra Whack
“Only Child”
Digital Single
Man, is it nice to have some new Tierra Whack songs that are longer than 60 seconds. Though last year’s “Whack World” was teeming with fresh, exciting ideas, the project felt frustratingly unfinished, due to the fact that each song was limited to one minute. That said, she’s been on an absolute tear in 2019, dropping a number of shapeshifting, genre-bending singles, like the playful, “Only Child.” We’re still waiting on a full-length debut LP, but when we finally get it, it’s going to be worth the wait.

Vampire Weekend
“Harmony Hall”
Father of the Bride (Spring Snow)
From the moment I heard their first LP, I knew that Vampire Weekend wasn’t for me. My parents didn’t raise me on Paul Simon. I don’t own boat shoes and have no fucking clue what a Mansard Roof is. And though each project has grown on me, I haven’t found an album that I’ve related to anywhere near as much as their spectacular fourth. It’s a clever, earnest look at adult love, typified by this wonderful, tuneful take on the way we often try to hold on to long-term relationships even once they’ve passed their sell-by date.

Caracara
“New Chemical Hades”
Better EP (Memory Music)
The Philly rockers channel their inner Verve Pipe for a mopey but affecting look at the way addiction separates people from the ones they love and then, from themselves. Vocalist William Lindsey starts things off on a somber note, saying  “I have become too apocalyptic for my friends to want me around.” He then shifts to pleading with them (and likely himself): “I can chay-anhe into something different. Many more characters I can play.” His directness is effective and unsettling, bringing the listener in to his fractured reality but offering a small touch of hope — the possibility of better choices and a healthier tomorrow.

American Football
“Uncomfortably Numb” (f/ Hayley Williams)
American Football (Polyvinyl)
The beloved emo quartet’s third LP is extremely dad rock but not in the traditional sense. The disc is an unflinching, unsettling look at fatherhood. Don’t let its jokey name fool you, “Uncomfortably Numb” is fucking brutal, as vocalist Mike Kinsella wonders how he’s going to connect to his child or his wife, considering how much he’s struggling to connect to his own feelings. Paramore’s Hayley Williams comes through with a vital contribution, playing the role of the long-suffering wife, who is more frustrated than concerned. I have no idea what parenting is like, but fuck, it sounds intense.

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