If you’re still not sure what happened in 2019, you’re not alone. Try piecing it all together with our recap of the year’s best tracks.
If you’re still unsure what exactly even happened in 2019, you’re not alone. After spending approximately two and a half years recovering from all that happened in 2016, we woke up and realised that the decade was nearly over. Thankfully, the past twelve months have seen a swell of great music to prevent us getting caught up in thoughts about the vicissitudes about time.
Yes, there have been some stand-out albums (Nick Cave came out of hiding!) but it’s singles that have really captured the spirit of 2019. With our dwindling attention spans and genre-fluid listening patterns, we can’t quite commit to full-lengths like we used to. With a new generation of social media-first music stars climbing the charts, hit singles can literally materialise out of nowhere and live multiple lives on the digisphere.
Relive the best of 2019 with our recap of the year’s best tracks below.
Lil Nas X ft. Billy Ray Cyrus – Old Town Road (remix)
We had to get this one out of the way first, because there’s no way we can discuss music in 2019 without talking about the vertiginous ascent of Lil Nas X. The Atlantan musician released “Old Town Road” on iTunes and Soundcloud before it blew up as TikTok challenge, encouraging users to don cowboy/girl looks under the #yeehaw tag. What followed was real-time IRL, a remix with Mr Billy Ray Cyrus, diamond certification and tasty follow-up “Panini”.
X’s runaway success has legitimised TikTok as a cultural hub — rather than a flash-in-the-pan digital phenomenon — whilst his cowboy persona capitalised on the growing yeehaw agenda, which saw the likes of Solange resist the whitewashing of the cowboy in the cultural imaginary to recuperate the history of the Black wild west.
Sharon Van Etten – Seventeen
Sharon Van Etten’s ragged tales of abusive relationships and mental health struggles transformed the New Jersey native into a ray of hope. For a fanbase displaced by the end of emo and loitering at the fringes of the 2010s indie rock scene in hopes of any music they can relate and emote to, she’s an icon.
For many, 2014’s Are We There LP gave voice to the numb, never-ending drone of depression and the quiet terror of habitual abuse (“Every time the sun comes up/ I’m in trouble”). After taking four years out to train as a counsellor, act, write filmscores, have a kid — everything but write another album — Van Etten came back to strike a more hopeful note. “Seventeen” taken from her post-hiatus LP Remind Me Tomorrow is as close to a hook-y pop track as we’ll ever get from Van Etten. With it’s tone of wistful nostalgia and its reflections on hard-won self-growth, it feels like the perfect track to close a decade of turbulent change, giddy progress and shocking setbacks.
FKA Twigs – Cellophane
FKA Twigs is far from the most prolific artist of the decade, but she’s one of the most influential. 2014’s LP 1 introduced us to her fragile falsetto and the delicate layers of production built around it but by the end of the decade she’s primarily viewed as an interdisciplinary artist working across dance, performance art and music, rather than a vocalist first and foremost.
Her return with MAGDALENE — a deep-dive into devotion, female sexuality and the minutiae of the human heart — felt like a victory lap, a well-timed score to secure her “icon of the 2010s” status, accompanied by extravagant visuals and a string of live dates replete with pole-dancing, sword-fighting and high-concept choreography. What makes “Cellophane” so exhilarating then, is its utter sparsity. With a barely-there instrumental, the entire track is pinned on Twigs’ straining, searching voice, wrapping itself around the jagged confessions of a failing relationship.
Megan Thee Stallion – Hot Girl Summer
When we look back at 2019, what are we doing to remember? Amongst the sea of viral moments and political mishaps we’d rather forget, there’s but one important development: #hotgirlsummer. Across social media, the hashtag sprung up to encourage womxn (and all other humans for that matter, regardless of gender) to live their best lives and bask in the golden glow of self love. Like all revolutions, #hotgirlsummer came accompanied by its very own anthem.
Opening with a snappy sample snatched from City Girls’ “Act Up,” the song provides the perfect platform for rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s larger-than-life musical persona and timely verses (“eat that dick up even when I’m going vegan”). “Hot Girl Summer,” may have been the original source of the hashtag but it was only when Nicki Minaj jumped onboard for the remix that we knew the movement was going global. Now, as the hashtag fades from memory, Thee Stallion’s track is sure to live on as one of the best hype tracks we’ve heard in years.
Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell
Lana Del Rey broke onto the scene with “Video Games” in 2011, but she feels more relevant now then she did then. Whilst the arch irony of the late noughties left many people craving authenticity, our current age of #content feels like Del Rey’s natural playground.
The contradictions between highly constructed artistic persona and intimate songs provide a parallel for all of us: even of our personalities, likes and dislikes are preconditioned by society and whatever’s fashionable at the time, we still feel all the same. “Norman Fucking Rockwell,” the title track from her sixth studio album, is an ode to the cage that is cis-heterosexuality. With lines like “why wait for the best when I could have you/ You’re just a man, it’s just what you do” she encapsulates the frustration of many a heterosexual woman who knows she could probably do better; breathing new life into the age-old dilemma with quavering emotion.
Ashnikko ft. Yung Baby Tate – STUPID
Like Lil Nas X, Ashnikko’s success was born on TikTok and the similarities don’t end there. Whilst both are classed as rappers, they’ve shown that they can mix it up with sung melodies, positioning them at the intersection of pop and hip-hop. Cross-pollinating their musical endeavours with a dense web of musical and cultural references (even seeing Ashnikko go a bit #yeehaw in her “Working Bitch” video) they’re part of a new breed of genre-less artists changing the music industry from the bottom, up.
What makes Ashnikko stand out from contemporaries like X is her riot grrrl rage at, not necessarily the patriarchy per se, but definitely fuck boys of all shapes and sizes. “STUPID,” featuring the honeyed rhymes of Yung Baby Tate, perfectly encapsulates this spirit and all that t Ashnikko does best. Flipping the script of casual dating, she harnesses the “pussy power” of vibrant female sexuality and youth to wax melodic about men’s essential dispensability and redundancy to an up-tempo rhythm. Not necessarily bolstering any conversations about “the changing face of masculinity” but good for dancing in your room to, all the same.
Rosalía ft. J Balvin – Con Altura
Catalan popstar Rosalía blew up with 2018 LP El Mal Querer. Since then the singer, who plucks the cante jondo vocal style from flamenco and pairs it with contemporary R’n’B beats, has been the centre of both widespread acclaim and controversy. In the Spanish press, she’s been accused of appropriating musical motifs associated with the country’s Romani population. In the US, her clean sweep at the Latin Grammys as an artist with no Latin American heritage emphasised the award ceremony’s track record of failing to acknowledge Afro-Latinx and Indigenous musicians.
It’s important to keep this context in mind when we listen to her music, particularly as it looks unlikely that her popularity will be dropping off any time soon. “Con Altura” could easily be viewed as another exercise in culture vulturism: an homage to classic reggaetón set to a classic dembow beat and inflected with Rosalía’s flamenco tones. However, teaming up with Columbian reggaetonero J Balvin, this ear-worm about catching flights and wild nights is less “white girl thinks she’s reinvented music” and more “pop gem” — press play.
Headie One – Both
The impact of a decade of Tory austerity on the arts has been well-documented. However, whilst we can’t understate the negative impact of cuts upon the creative industries, little compares to the outright hostility which drill was subject to under Conservative rule. Due to state-sponsored racism and the genre’s association with Black and Minority Ethnic young people, it was deemed to incite gang violence and knife crime by police authorities. In instances of blatant censorship, drill videos were deleted off of YouTube as the behest of London police in 2018 and 2019 and drill act Skengdo x AM were even sent to prison.
The mainstream crossover of Tottenham drill act Headie One this year felt significant, then. In January 2019, he climbed the charts with “18Hunna” — thanks in no small part to the support of Grime superstar Dave. In November, he followed-up with “Both,” tapping into today’s vibe of Y2K nostalgia by sampling Ultra Nate’s 1997 house anthem “Free”. “Both” feels like a statement that Headie One, and drill generally, is here to stay with the rapper proclaiming; “They say that I’m the king of drill / I’m doing it all.” We couldn’t agree more.
BTS (feat. Halsey) – Boy with Luv
One of the largest shifts in contemporary culture over the 2010s has been “hallyu” or the “Korean wave”. K-pop groups and K-dramas, which first began to gather an international trajectory in the ‘90s, have gained wide-spread popularity across Asia, the Americas and Europe in a manner that was previously reserved purely for English-language culture. As media distribution methods become more globalised via streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, South Korea’s cultural reach seems unstoppable.
One of South Korea’s foremost cultural exports is seven-piece BTS, whose “army” of fans knows no bounds of geography or stanage. After flying high throughout 2018, the boyband reprised 2014 track “Boy in Luv” for 2019. With lighter lyrics and an added English-language guest spot from Halsey, the sequel track was a definitive “we’re here” moment.
Solange – Stay Flo
As we’ve noted, few trends defined 2019 quite like rodeo chic — with our fave artists like Lil Nas X and Ashnikko jumping on the bandwagon. Ignoring Mitski’s 2018 album Be the Cowboy, we can attribute the beginnings of the yeehaw agenda to Solange. With When I Get Home, her follow-up to 2016’s widely-feted Seat At The Table, the musician paid homage to the Houston she remembers from her childhood, a version of a place that lives on only in her mind. In reference to Texas’s central importance in the Western genre, she donned cowboy hats and boots in the album’s visual components and shouted out to “ALL THE BLACK COWBOYS IN THE LAND” on Twitter, giving the yeehaw agenda its vital momentum.
Switching up the politically-engaged poeticism of her 2016 release, When I Get Home trades in abstraction and deconstructed musical musings. “Stay Flo” is one of the tracks that feel easiest to pluck out in an album that works best in its entirety. Staccato lyrics evoke the cowboy’s hard day’s grind against a switchy rhythm, with Solange’s ethereal vocals creating a sense of harmony in the verse. As we approach a new decade, the Houston musician’s forward-facing work feels like the perfect soundtrack.
23 December 2019