The Top 25 Tracks of the Year
From Megan’s Hot Girl Summer to rave-inflected jazz via some of the UK’s sharpest bars, here are the 25 tracks that defined 2019
The story of Normani, pop’s heir apparent, is one of resilience. She was brought up on the tough vocal demands of gospel music and from a young age trained in dance and gymnastics. She spent her childhood in New Orleans before her family were displaced following hurricane Katrina. Eventually, she wound up entering the US X Factor and was put into girl group Fifth Harmony where, in 2016, she was targeted by racist trolls. After the group disbanded, Normani began to carve out her own path. Then in August we got Motivation, a pop anthem for the ages with an athletic dance-routine video that rivals Beyonce’s Crazy in Love. Years of work had built to that moment – now the world waits for the next chapter.
For Joe to release a track called Get Centred is pretty rich – his productions hinge on a deliciously off kilter DNA. And Get Centred is so off kilter it’s almost nauseating. The standout track from the EP of the same name, which was his first for Matias Aguayo’s Cómeme imprint, tiptoed around club track conventions. It’s succinctly slinky, with a sophisticated 7/8 time signature essentially jolting you off balance on the dancefloor and whisking you up in a perpetual sense of forward motion. It’s a trick that’s not easy for producers to pull off, and with it Joe flew the flag for the great Hessle tradition of alien-sounding bangers in 2019.
As the first single from her debut album Immunity, Bags is the crowning centrepiece – and here, Clairo doubles down on the inward gaze. With a narrative weaved around the development of feelings for a friend, throughout, Clairo’s voice retains a passive tone, giving the appearance of seeming coolly detached. The rest of the single, however, is painted in shades of emotional intensities that swell and spill over during the chorus. The scrapes of skin on the guitar, combined with the track’s lo-fi quality, heightens a sense of physical closeness, while keys on the piano sound as though they’re being played heavily, clumsily. We’re now well into cuffing season but even if you’ve got it locked down, Bags has the immense power of transporting you back to those tangled emotions at the beginning.
There are few things more liberating than getting down to a perreo intenso – or, intense grinding – at the club, and Ms Nina knows it. The Argentina-born, Madrid-based rising reggaeton star’s musical manifesto is centered almost entirely around booty dancing, so as long as it’s consensual. This is the doctrine at the heart of the neo-perreo movement in which she operates in; the feminist, internet-inspired reggaeton offshoot championing the progressive politics that the genre’s traditional roots often sideline. With Coqueta, she keeps this same energy. Carried by a pounding dembow beat, alluringly auto-tuned vocals and a half-time break that you can’t help but drop down to the floor to, her vision of a consensual sweat-drenched perreo comes to life. Reggaeton is famously an insatiably horny genre, and Ms Nina’s version of it is unrestrained, empowering, and downright electrifying.
Rachel Grace Almeida
If Girl Unit ever put a foot wrong, it was writing a breakthrough hit too big for its own good. Arriving on the scene in 2010 with the decade-defining anthem Wut, he set himself a precedent that was near impossible to follow – and indeed it took nine years for his excellent debut album to finally arrive. The record’s highlight, Pure Gold deploys the same key elements that made Wut a hit: euphoric pads, perfectly engineered 808s, and a moreishly simple earworming melody. But where Wut felt raw and adolescent, Pure Gold flows with a smooth self-assuredness – the sound of a grown artist who has matured without losing his golden touch.
Caroline Polachek drifted back onto the scene this year with Parachute. The first track recorded for her album Pang, it enlisted PC Music man Danny L Harle – a change in direction for the artist, formerly one half of twee mid-aughts duo Chairlift. Inspired by a stirring dream Polachek had about defense mechanisms in the face of emergency, Polachek’s vocals figure skate through through lofty, ice-cold ambience. The track’s stretched metaphor speaks to the emotional intensity of those messy in between spaces in life, the elusive stability we crave when we’re drifting, and holding onto the faith that we’re headed, as Polachek says, to “the soft ground”. An elegant pivot from indie darling to avant-pop queen.
K-Lone’s run of releases in the last couple of years have been as exciting and as they have consistently brilliant since his debut in 2016. Follow the London producer’s output and you’ll find experimentation in dubstep, techno and the murky leanings of UK bass. These sensibilities come together for his most accomplished EP to date, Sine Language. But the title track is K-Lone’s crowning moment. As it funnels a body-moving dose of Miami bass through washes of ambient hush, Sine Language is carried by echoed rap vocals and K-Lone’s intoxicating use of sped-up hi hat rolls – prompting the kind of deep, focused moments of dancing that swirl around the club when a track of this calibre gets dropped.
Megan Thee Stallion ft. Juicy J
Few musicians have had a better year than Texas’ Megan Thee Stallion. Between coining the Hot Girl Summer meme (and later making a single of the same title with Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign), and the release of her Fever mixtape, Hot Girl Meg has been one of the most culturally dominant rappers of 2019. All the reasons for this are summed up on the earworm mixtape track Simon Says, on which Megan’s inherently listenable voice, grinning purple-devil-emoji sense of humour, and proclivity for a well placed sample are all on full display. It’s a standout moment for a woman with the world at the tip of her enviable knee-high boots.
Italian composer Caterina Barbieri is part of a new generation of modular synthesists exploring the transformative power of minimalism and repetition. Fantas, the ecstatic and flag-planting opener to her debut for Editions Mego, shrinks her work to a more human scale without losing any of the universe-scraping profundity. Embedding barely perceptible developments in patterns within drifting, macro shifts, the first half of Fantas is spent painstakingly building a spikey melodic motif to a climax, only for it to burn away to reveal a second, more meditative movement. By the third evolution, the listener’s sense of perception is so bonded with the track’s cyclical mechanics that the 10 minutes running length could be two, or 200.
Squid’s ascent seemingly appeared out of nowhere. The five-piece first sparked a quiet commotion with their atmospheric Lino EP in 2017, but it’s The Cleaner that catapulted them to new heights. With all the makings of a stylish post-punk track, The Cleaner invokes the same eccentric flair invoked by Talking Heads or DEVO, its deliciously prominent bassline and lopsided vocals sitting at the centre of the whole thing. The single’s artwork is similarly whimsical, with an unadorned illustration of a suburban street that feels as wry and tongue-in-cheek as the song itself. The Cleaner presents a promising, if remarkably self-assured, snapshot of what’s in store from Squid – a musical force that is frenetic, at times nonsensical, and everything that’s missing from music right now.
Rachel Grace Almeida
There’s something refreshingly carefree in the way that Kieren Hebden (aka Four Tet) approaches his career. It can be seen in the way he releases his music: without fanfare, often uploaded on a whim to Bandcamp. It is evidenced by the range of artists he chooses to work with, from Burial to controversial EDM star Skrillex. And it can be heard on Only Human: a deep, progressive techno track, made exhilaratingly silly with a looping Nelly Furtado vocal. A more self-serious artist might shy away from risking such bright, poppy elements in the dour context of big-room techno. Luckily, Hebden doesn’t seem to care in the slightest.
Great pop songs get inside your head. The textural production of Bad Guy makes it feel as if it’s doing that literally. Like all of Eilish’s revolutionary ASMR-pop, the song crawls under your skin and lingers with an offbeat intrigue. A whispered vocal, a throbbing pulse, an airy top-end hook all paired with taunting lyrics that challenge the very notions of what it means to be a pop star in 2019. Of all her earworms, this one stuck around longest and best encapsulates her singular vision. As one bewildering decade draws to a close, it’s clear who’s taking control of the next one.
Though it was technically released at the tail end of 2018, A Lot’s impact undoubtedly hit this year off the back of his Tonight Show performance. The song that may or may not have landed him in ICE custody, A Lot isn’t the best track in 21 Savage’s discography but it is a pure distillation of his icy take on Atlanta’s flagship sound. While Savage is stoney-faced at the best of times, his monotone delivery on this song masked a growing lyrically vulnerability, his flexes on the hook counterbalanced by honest verses. NB: This is absolutely not the J Cole version.
The Comet is Coming
Summon the Fire
Shabaka and co probably didn’t set out to write a jazz track you could drop at Bang Face when they wrote Summon the Fire, but intentional or not, they did. While the entirety of Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery is astounding, it’s safe to say that this track has played a vital role in propelling the group to new heights of international, if not yet intergalactic, fame. As celestially-minded as you’d expect from the Comet trio, this song pays equal homage to British rave (that honking, staccato, almost football terrace-worth mid section) and Sun Ra (you know, space), pushing the UK’s jazz revival further into unexplored territory.
Eye in the Wall
Described by Mike Hadreas as a “cosmic peep show”, Eye in the Wall was the first piece of music from to be taken from Hadreas’ and Kate Wallich’s collaborative dance performance piece The Sun Still Burns Here. Certainly, the sense of the body, of movement through space, is mapped onto the contours of the track, its libidinous analogue undulations and nocturnal atmospherics, keently expressed in a ur-language of moans recorded low in the mix. Every bit as epic as its nine-minute length would suggest, Eye in the Wall felt less like a stylistic departure than a natural development for an artist well acclimated to exploring the intersections of desire and pain.
A step back from the jazzier reaches of his recent sound, Sam Shepherd got back to business with this surprisingly straightforward banger. Still, LesAlpx keeps you on your toes. Floating Points wastes no time, with fidgeting, restless percussion and weeping chords cranking up the intensity from the offset, starting taut and elastic before shifting to prog and then – in true FloPo fashion – unravelling and reforming into unexpected, satisfying configurations. For those itching for Shepherd to return his gaze to the dancefloor, LesAlpx was a salve.
Welcome to the Party
In case you needed further evidence of UK drill’s banner year, even the best American drill tunes are being made in the UK now. Produced by Ilford’s 808Melo, Welcome to the Party has been the breakout anthem for a growing contingent of Brooklyn drill MCs who have picked up the baton from London and Chicago of late and offered their own mutant take on the genre. Pop Smoke’s grizzly, lopsided flow is the perfect compliment to the dubstep-tinged throbs of the beat; grime might not have fully found its feet in the US but it looks like UK drill just might.
Charli XCX ft. Christine and the Queens
In 2019, Charli XCX finally geared up into album mode, and for her first trick, she released Gone. A flashy, hooky track with a big name feature in the form of Chris of Christine and the Queens, it showcases Charli railing against her insecurities with her weapon of choice: massive synths and a chorus so walloping it should be a health and safety concern. Though Charli has consistently shown that she doesn’t need to take the traditional pop route, Gone’s gesture towards it demonstrated that, like most things she turns her hand to, she could if she wanted to.
Tyler, the Creator
There aren’t many Tyler, the Creator songs you could get away with singing at karaoke but if the sweeping melodies on Earfquake don’t make you want to neck your fifth pint and leap on stage with the mic then we’re sorry but you don’t have a soul. Hopelessly in love, the track balances layers of vocal harmony, 80s synths and a Playboi Carti verse like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Fold in some needle-sharp countermelodies, one of the catchiest hooks of the year and the fact it was originally written for Justin Bieber and there’s little doubt that this is the standout track from IGOR.
Sitting as a relative anomaly on Thom Yorke’s recent record ANIMA, Dawn Chorus sits alone amongst the album’s dystopian themes as a stunning lament to absence. A sonically uncomplicated ode to someone missing, the track is layered in fuzz and driven by a repetitive monochrome pulse. This stripped-back simplicity makes Yorke’s lyricism all the more poignant, allowing lines like, “In the middle of the vortex/ The wind picked up/ Shook up the soot/ From the chimney pot/Into spiral patterns/ Of you, my love” to land with devastating clarity. As Yorke grapples with memory, loss and reminiscence, it falls to the rising, thrumming synths to offer a vital glimpse of hope.
Headie One ft. Dave
Two of the year’s brightest UK rap talents unite for the kind of banger that only comes around every so often. Both Headie One and Dave have a certain carelessness that can’t be taught. They freewheel across producer 169’s icy instrumental with ease, Dave’s supple flow counterpoint Headie’s stoic delivery. The video opens with Headie pacing leisurely, dead-staring the camera, before passing Dave who’s doing the same. It’s a good illustration of the track’s energy – cold, unflinching, unignorable.
Sharon Van Etten
Seventeen is a throwback. A strapping rock song dressed in the frayed denim of nostalgia. Even its conceit – the care-worn adult mythologising a gilded, prelapsarian youth – is a staple of pop culture. What tips this clear standout from Sharon Van Etten’s fifth album into something more than the sum of its well-oiled parts is the profound undertow of loss and sadness: “I used to feel free” Van Etten sings to her younger self, her voice cracking with the weight of a life’s accumulated bullshit. “Or was it just a dream?” It isn’t the song’s surging momentum that sweeps you up, nor the rising synths – it’s the universalism. So yes, Seventeen is a throwback. It’s also a classic.
Feed My Ancestors
Hiro Kone’s music at times sounds abstract, but her ideas rarely are. A strong conceptual framework is at the heart of everything the New York artist does. 2018 album Pure Expenditure examined releases of energy, inspired by texts on capitalism by French philosopher Georges Bataille. Feed My Ancestors further builds on her cerebral universe. Inspired by her ancestral roots, Mao considers the power of absence – in her life, in the lives of others, in history. The song’s galloping kick, with a static sample that crackles like the song’s fractured artwork, is menacing and cinematic, capturing the high-stakes drama of its influences. When a watery synth line breaks the tight-rope tension, and you’re left suspended in a moment of unexpected introspection? A genius at work.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Lana Del Rey
hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have, but I have it
Just over a week into 2019, Lana Del Rey dropped hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have, but I have it. Its artwork was a black-and-white selfie, and it followed in the same, strongly piano-led vein as its 2018 predecessor, Venice Bitch. It began the dominance that Del Rey would continue with her career-best record Norman Fucking Rockwell! and has endured as one of the best tracks of the year arguably for its simplicity, as her voice bristles against sparse chords, surveying the state of her inner life versus the one projected onto her.
Class of Deja
Class of Deja wasn’t always part of the plan. In interviews surrounding the release of Hoodies All Summer, Kano revealed that he originally planned to build the album around a set of themes – home, hope and humanity. The alien instrumentals and electrifying energy of grime in its purest form might have jarred with such a sensitive analysis of turbulent times. Or so he thought.
It wasn’t until a studio session with Ghetts that an old but familiar feeling began to re-emerge. Sat side-by-side, the pair wrote bars for a windy instrumental produced by Blue May and Jodie Milliner. When they were finished, they recorded them using the same microphone. It materialised into Class of Deja.
Kano and Ghetts came up together in N.A.S.T.Y Crew, an east London grime collective whose show on pirate radio station Deja Vu FM became the stuff of legend. It was on these broadcasts that Kano and Ghetts honed their acrobatic technique. As a pair they exhibit the kind of productive rivalry which exists only when you know your opponent inside out, and they know you know. It’s a game of second-guessing, ducking and diving; finding pockets of instrumental that your adversary may have missed; pulling off metaphors and lyrical tricks that will catch your rival (and the audience) off-guard.
It’s an energy that’s existed at the core of grime from the very beginning. Whether on Deja Vu broadcasts, Lord of the Mics DVDs, Butterz parties or freestyles in parks, oneupmanship was paramount. It’s a competitiveness that feels distant, in many ways, to the grime of today. Since its rebirth some five years ago, artists have been more concerned with supporting and celebrating each other than sparring. The magic in Class of Deja is how it returns to this time-honoured tradition without collapsing into nostalgia – recalling a legacy which says more about today than yesterday.
In the second chapter of Kano’s double video for this and Trouble, Class of Deja is performed at a wake. Captured in one shot by Aneil Karia (who also directed the final three episodes of Top Boy) Kano performs the track with Ghetts and D Double E in a modest London living room, sharing one wired mic between them. It’s this video that gave the track a biblical heft on first listen, showing the full-body rapture of the music and illustrating the deep cultural significance it bears within communities. And all of this without softening the sheer impact of the music.
There’s Ghetts’ mind-bending assonance (“They ain’t been to the mountain once/ Shaolin monk when I step in his temple/ Tag team, man see legends assemble”), all the poetic dexterity of golden-era Jay-Z at twice the speed and with none of the conversational breeze. There’s Kano’s masterful lyrical honouring of scene forefathers like Bushkin and MC Esco, his limber flow darting across the production. Then there’s the almost transcendent sensei presence of D Double E who, like any good teacher, counterpoints the hyperactive energy of his students with a serene authority.
Class of Deja is essential to the story Kano told with this album. Not just because no celebration of his home could be complete without a grime track, but because Class of Deja can only exist in 2019. Grime now has the breathing space to be understood in different contexts – a liberty deservedly afforded to a British cultural revolution. These are artists who, while maintaining a youthful exuberance and hunger, no longer need to prove themselves. These sounds, once futuristic and strange, are now rightfully celebrated, a prominent thread in the tapestry of 21st century British music.
The tower block that Deja Vu FM used to broadcast from in Stratford no longer exists. It was demolished to make way for redevelopment before the 2012 Olympic Games. It’s one of many on a long list of landmarks lost to a comprehensive attempt to rewrite an entire landscape. Culture, thankfully, is made of tougher stuff.