25. Calexico and Iron & Wine: “Follow the Water” [Sub Pop]
Calexico and Iron & Wine’s Years to Burn is one of 2019’s gentlest albums, a collection of songs that together seems to make something that sounds and feels so settled, calm and effortlessly in control, a far more cohesive collaboration than 2005’s excellent, but sometimes piecemeal, In the Reins.
“Follow the Water” starts gently, a picked guitar and the mere smudge of a Fender Rhodes in the background, the folk country tune unfolding like the small town life the song seems to both suggest and perhaps even to celebrate without being blind to its order edges . For as Sam Beam sings, “Where small town thugs and lightning bugs/ Shine in their final hours/ And their hearts all come out of the cold/ In the nick of time.” At its centre though “Follow the Water” is about friendship, its discovery and survival, so that when Beam sings “When I fell out of the palm of your hand/ With the summer flowers/ I followed the water and found these friends of mine,” he could equally be singing about the ways in which the two bands have found a way to work so easily together. Joey Burns of Calexico has said of this album, “For all the things going on in our world and in each of our lives, this connection, this friendship, this love that we have—this album is a vehicle for that bond.” That friendship is clear throughout this perfectly formed gem, Burns and Calexico bandmate John Convertino harmonizing softly with Beam, the intertwined guitar lines gently weaving the same kind of dusty summer night Beam’s lyrics evoke. As Beam concludes elsewhere, “…life is complicated. Let’s not talk like teenagers about love, desire, pain, ‘cause we’re not teenagers. And that’s not a bad thing.” – Scott Wilson
24. Charli XCX: “Gone” [Atlantic]
Of all the star-studded, chart-friendly singles released ahead of Charli XCX’s magnificent Charli, the best was a sparse and strange pop ballad about social anxiety. Along with Christine and the Queens, Charli delivered an anthem for everyone who’s ever awkwardly stood in the corner of a party and nervously checked their phone while they wait for an appropriate moment to slip out and call a ride home. Where Charli’s verse is all about this state’s physical effects (chills, the sweats), Christine takes a purely cerebral approach, subsuming the track’s emotional tone into a series of heady nature metaphors.
Like many of the tracks on Charli, “Gone” forgoes explosive hooks in favor of a stripped-back beat and a nostalgic, pastel atmosphere. The thumping percussion and bassline on the chorus feel almost anticlimactic upon first listen, but the doubled vocal melody is so sticky that any other extraneous sounds would simply distract from the solid gold of Charli’s songwriting. The track eventually reaches a definitively PC Music-style breakdown, with the two voices ping-ponging around the mix like a pair of malfunctioning robots. Top this all off with an unforgettably steamy and surreal music video, and “Gone” is nothing but another testament to Charli XCX’s unmatched mastery of the medium of pop music. – Connor Lockie
23. Jenny Hval: “Ashes to Ashes” [Sacred Bones]
The cycle of life and creation in general always begins with very little. “Ashes to Ashes” begins on a sparse note, literally a single note beneath Jenny Hval’s soft, unaffected voice. As the track carries on, it grows larger and fuller, additional synths and what sounds like wood blocks entering the fray as a concept becomes whole. Hval’s lyrics may fly above the production as they detail the marvels of imagination, sexual awakenings and songwriting, but they never dictate the song’s direction or momentum. The beat carries on beneath and, by the end, away from her, and she allows it to do so with the awareness that existence rarely stops and listens to any of us.
Note that even the album’s title refers to love not as art, beauty, or blessing, but a routine carried out as a natural force. It is through discipline and acceptance that one channels such forces into something constructive and to be enjoyed. Yet even if said control is achieved, it always fades to nothingness, back to where one started. Hval, though aware of this somber reality, at least allows listeners the chance to bask and dance in the glow of creativity and adulthood, wonderful qualities that, like everything else, eventually fade to dust and ashes. – Mick Jacobs
22. Thom Yorke: “Dawn Chorus” [XL Recordings]
When that icy progression of synthesizer slowly glimmers to life at the beginning of “Dawn Chorus,” you stop everything. The song just aches so much that you can’t help but hurry to its side, ready to give your full attention. The body ceases, the mind wakes. This halting energy forms the song’s core, with its pacing that trips forward to fall right back. It’s a spinning pattern, hypnotizing as a doll’s empty eye. Whispers of choir slowly ascend in the background, the sonic equivalent of “the soot from the chimney pot” that drifts up in the lyrics.
By now, you probably know that the song is about Yorke’s breakup with longtime partner Rachel Owen, who passed away in 2016, not long after the split. “Please let me know/ When you’ve had enough/ Of the white light/ Of the dawn chorus,” Yorke pleads, with more than a Memento-style pinch of bitterness. Yet he gingerly places these words in limbo, between devastating romantic letdown and eternal fade out, the two possibilities equally metaphysical. He doesn’t sing this tune: he just speaks, and the letters turn into something resembling a half-remembered melody. The song collects this melody along with a bunch of other debris, like the “moshi mosh” and “chop chop” of the lyrics, and all the tiny pieces drift along in rising light. It’s a fragile tune, composed from miniscule crystals of dust (and not the “fairy dust” trapped within the song’s wistful impossibility).
“If you could do it all again/ This time with style,” the song concludes, the question half formed. Would you? It’s something one might ask out of boredom, just to kill time, or perhaps out of curiosity about the shadowy forms of someone else’s interior life. The abruptness of the present cuts the conversation short. – Jeff Heinzl
21. Angel Olsen: “Lark” [Jagjaguwar]
“Lark”, the opening track from Angel Olsen’s latest album All Mirrors, acts more like a de facto epilogue than a prologue. Its story takes place before the beginning of the song. “If only we could start again pretending we don’t know each other” sings Olsen in the song’s opening verse but the listener is bereft of any context for such a wish. There is an underlying theme or a previous conversation that we are blissfully unaware of. It does, however, set the stage for what is to follow on All Mirrors, growing from a restrained murmur to a wailing, reverberating orchestral pop tour de force before falling back in on itself again, with resonance usually found only in places of worship. The instrumentation bubbles faraway from Olsen’s expressive vocal before enveloping her at just the right moments.
The song’s masterfully climbing intro rises and morphs into a refrain of “Dream on” and one can’t help but think of Aerosmith but “Lark” is so much more contemplative than anything Tyler & Co. have ever themselves dreamed of writing. Her lyrics speak plainly of yearning “What about my dreams?/ What about the heart?” while her voice is so impassioned, she’s practically shrieking. Featuring accompaniment from co-producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Chelsea Wolfe, Baroness) and a 14-piece orchestra, the song’s arrangement is intuitive, intuitively building in intensity alongside the lyrics and Olsen’s vocal performance which adds a certain dignity to her ponderings. But under the entire grandiose symphony is a sequence of strain and repeated meditative statements, lasting long enough to hypnotise and mesmerise. The song’s music video (directed by Ashley Connor) captures the song narrative aptly, portraying shadows of Olsen arguing with a male counterpart behind closed doors before she storms out and wanders towards the distant landscape of hills, trees and shore for solitude and peaceful reflection. It’s in these places we can become absorbed in our own thoughts. On “Lark”, Olsen invites us to be absorbed by hers. – Danny Kilmartin
20. Vampire Weekend: “This Life” [Columbia]
Vampire Weekend reemerged this year with a sprawling album that showed little interest in moderating the impulses that have made the band surprisingly divisive during their decade plus run. But desperate times call for maximalist measures. Landing closer to their “old” sound than the more jam-band influenced songs on Father of the Bride, “This Life” is a perfect example of the pairing between the hopeful sounds of pop music and the existential despair at the heart of human existence.
The opening lyric – “Baby I know pain is as natural as the rain/ I just thought it didn’t rain in California” – traffics in a sugary sentimentalism that the song deconstructs. Detouring through a borrowed iLoveMakonnen hook and musing on the violent circumstances of Jewish migration to the United States, Ezra Koenig finally verbalizes the dilemma at the center of it all: “Oh Christ, am I good for nothing?” It’s both a question and a realization.
“This Life” is, in one sense, a perfectly crafted pop song about, what else: love. But it’s also a song about all of us skating by, getting away with happiness for as long as we can before being faced with truth that bad times are always just around the corner, and we might be their source. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, so it helps that it’s coated in some of the catchiest melodies of Vampire Weekend’s catalogue. – Ian Maxton
19. Lambchop: The New Isn’t So You Anymore [Merge]
When Lambchop played Pickathon earlier this year, singer and songwriter Kurt Wagner closed out the set by saying, “Thanks for listening to our weird little band from Nashville.” It’s a self-deprecating but accurate way to describe the odd and specific space that Lambchop occupy. On This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You), the band continues to explore the sound they first cracked open on 2016’s FLOTUS and the lead track, “The New Isn’t So You Anymore” sets our expectations immediately. Yes, Wagner is still using vocoder; yes, the electronic elements are front and center; yes, we’re about to embark on an idiosyncratic journey; no, not everyone will get it. It’s soulful, intimate, and just a little off center, like Bob Seger or Steely Dan run through a Tortoise filter. Piano mingles with wah-pedaled guitars, woody sounding bass, and drum machines as Wagner explores what it means to get older and, perhaps, lose touch with the world at large. Wagner’s heavily vocodered voice croons, “Let’s start again like stupid children/Sir, I’m afraid that’s not possible.” Time marches on with or without you and it’s up to you how to deal with it. As the past gets larger, the urgency of youth is replaced by the urgency of getting something- anything– done before it’s too late. Wagner gently urges “If we get out of our convictions/There’s still time to make the movie,” a reminder that it’s good to shake things up, a notion buoyed by the bold yet intimate music that Lambchop continues to make. “The New Isn’t So You Anymore” is a reality check that still wants to believe that change is possible. You may not be new, but you can still be you if you’re willing to take the risk. – Eric Mellor
18. Angel Olsen: “All Mirrors” [Jagjaguwar]
On every previous record, Angel Olsen disclosed parts of herself through different guises, such as the raw-nerved indie rocker behind Burn Your Fire for No Witness or the silver-haired troubadour of My Woman. Over the course of “All Mirrors,” Olsen reveals herself as an ethereal force of nature. Musically, the song arrives from beyond the clouds, sounding unknowable and infinite. Drums hit like a microphone placed inside a heart chamber, with an airy, steady synth that cuts across like a beam of light. It’s the electronic pulse of “Intern” blown out to cinematic proportions.
But the real moment of catharsis arrives halfway through, when the synths twist and curve into an endlessly-listenable, wavy melody. It’s joined by equally sweeping strings, the track quickly churning through motions like the best classical works. The synths fade out for a moment, leaving you with the allure of those strings, only to roar back alongside the pounding percussion. It takes you on such a wonderful journey that the song feels like it could have been impactful as an instrumental. But Olsen’s voice and lyrics bring forth an added weight and a devastating earworm chorus, especially as she repeats one of her best lines yet, singing “Losin’ beauty, at least at times it knew me.” Blending power, grace and otherworldliness, “All Mirrors” is one of Olsen’s most grandiose, visionary pieces of music she’s ever written. – Joe Marvilli
17. Moodymann: “I Think of Saturday” [KDJ]
“Sometimes I scream for mama,” Moodymann moans before the drums snap in place on the most tempestuous and terrifying song of his three-decade career. Ever since debuting as a leading light of the jazzier, earthier second wave of Detroit techno, Moodymann’s persona has been well-defined: a lecherous, sensual, eternally middle-aged lounge lizard caught in the middle of a hallucinatory conversation with himself. It’s on “I Think of Saturday,” the second track from his magnificent Sinner, that the voices in his head start to take control. The word “church” echoes like a nagging refrain in the sinner’s psyche as he madly anticipates the opportunity to step behind the decks on Saturday night. So much of the best soul music is about the tug-of-war between the spiritual and the carnal, and on “I Think of Saturday” they’re ripping each other to shreds. Over the kind of LinnDrum beat house producers in the eighties spent untold dollars trying to copy from their favorite Prince records, Moodymann squirms inside his own mind, his only friends the records he’s condemned to eternally spin like the DJ in hell. “Without you, I don’t feel so bad,” croaks a voice from the bottom of a sample bin. Despondent, Dixon responds: “Yet, here I am.” – Daniel Bromfield
16. Lil Nas X (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus): “Old Town Road (Remix)” [Columbia]
For a while there it seemed like the pop music charts might consist solely of “Old Town Road” remixes with chaotic artist features in perpetuity. Stacking remix on top of remix in an unprecedented bid for chart dominance did not quite prove to be Lil Nas X’s style, though one wishes he had kept going long enough to get us all that Dolly Parton feature. But beneath the hype, beneath the chart genre controversy, beneath even the memes, there is still the song.
It is likely that you have been in a room full of people when this song came on at some point this year. If you have, even if you hate this song, it is difficult to deny its infectious power. Children dance, adults twirl fake lassos and joy rides in on a jet black horse. Maybe there is something universal to human experience about the sentiment “I wanna ride ‘til I can’t no more.” Or maybe we all just want the mythical freedom of the cowboy.
A song combining a Nine Inch Nails sample, a Billy Ray Cyrus vocal feature and a former Twitter stan turned rapper feels like the kind of thing you could only make by drunkenly throwing darts at a board with random Wikipedia pages on it. That the resulting combination would be not just a world-beating chart-topper, but a life-affirming bit of pop songcraft seems impossible. And yet, here we are, living in a post-OTR world. Nothing will ever be the same. – Ian Maxton
15. Lizzo: Juice [Nice Life/Atlantic]
Like any good “overnight success,” Lizzo was a long time coming. The Coconut Oil EP showed immense promise, but nothing compared to the first time this world-defeating single blasted through your speakers. Bottling up the intensity of her body-positive messaging into a sonic boom of neo-funk, Lizzo crafts a major-key bomb that explodes from the first shimmer of guitar and lurch of bass. Crucially, though, she holds back her powerhouse voice, sticking to staccato teases that burst into incandescent falsettos that, somehow, only deepen the song’s fierce statement of defiance. This is not a track about loving oneself for affirmation, this is one that takes self-love as a grounding fact that orients the singer’s entire perspective. Less a come-on than a challenger to all comers, “Juice” doesn’t ask if you’re open enough to love a big girl but if you’re strong enough for the gale-force intensity about to bear down on you. Released at the top of the year, this was still the summer jam of 2019, a ferocious anthem so forcefully driven that the fact that its mix of shine and stomp is compulsively danceable and nothing but hooks is almost besides the point. Lizzo would have crafted a banger out of free jazz with this attitude. – Jake Cole
14. Charly Bliss: “Young Enough” [Barsuk]
Charly Bliss could have just kept making Guppy over and over, and life would have been fine. Instead, as the band matured, so did their music. If their debut owed much of its vitality to young love, follow-up Young Enough looked back with a little perspective on the good and, cuttingly, the bad. Vocalist Eva Hendricks explores the fallout from a relationship disaster, among other topics, while the band shapes more complex structures. The album’s title track finds something challenging but pure in a first love in which neither partner was quite fit enough for the relationship to be healthy. The couple bought into the idea that their relationship should look like teen drama, but Hendricks reflects on the error in that thinking. Charly Bliss build the song slowly, adding pieces and strengthening the music until it becomes anthemic despite its heavy topic.
The song on its own would be a classic: the wise lyrics, unique view and smart arrangement adding up to something as valuable as it is catchy. Put in the context of the album, the song simply soars. On Young Enough, Hendricks shares, for just one example, her own sexual assault. Charly Bliss doesn’t take a pedestrian look at the vicissitudes of love; they break right into the most challenging aspects. In the middle of that turmoil, she pauses to look back on failed but vibrant love. She’s right that it shouldn’t hurt and that neither of them were ready. Charly Bliss turns that knowledge into an epic of holding beauty and realism in the same hand. – Justin Cober-Lake
13. DaBaby: “Suge (Yea Yea)” [South Coast Music Group]
Why is it that, even when he’s threatening to slap the shit out of you and comparing himself to one of the most feared industry moguls of all time, DaBaby comes across as so lovable? Maybe it’s his shit-eating grin, or his wacky sense of humor that’s halfway between 2010s meme-rap (he used to be Baby Jesus and has a penchant for wearing diapers) and the good-natured sunniness of D.R.A.M. or Lil Yachty. But mostly it’s because the guy obviously loves rapping. There’s nothing arrogant or jaded about his delivery on his signature song “Suge (Yea Yea),” none of the leering condescension that so often accompanies I’m-great-and-you’re-not rap songs like this: just this clownish dude throwing himself head-first onto the beat, taking up every inch of space with his voice. Mainstream rap in the 2010s has leaned more holistic, less about great rhymes over a great beat than about how rhymes, beat, melody, and personality can combine into a great song. “Suge” fits this descriptor, not because DaBaby skimps on his bars but because his rapping is as much a percussive instrument as anything else. It barely matters what he’s saying or even how he says it; what’s important is the force and gusto with which he does so. – Daniel Bromfield
12. The National: “Not in Kansas” [4AD]
This year’s I Am Easy To Find was a risky move for The National, full of new things, most notably the wealth of women singing alongside frontperson Matt Berninger. The biggest risk of the bunch – and indeed the one that paid off the most – is the centerpiece of I Am Easy, the sprawling “Not In Kansas.”
Here, Berninger largely drops the act of singing and rambles out a few verses of autobiographical, semi-stream of consciousness beauty, centered around (among other things) political disillusion, the power of incredible art, and the memories that we carry with us into adulthood. He tosses out lines like “I read whatever it is you give me/ It’s half your fault, so half forgive me” and namechecks The Godfather and R.E.M.’s “Begin the Begin” like it’s nothing. Rumor has it Berninger wrote plenty more for the song, and it’s hard to not want to hear those verses.
The music itself is among the most simplistic the band have put their names to, but it functions so well because it reframes Berninger and his lyrics as a star of the song, with little flashiness to distract. He’s only a star, though, and depending on who’d you’d ask, the stars of the song are Lisa Hannigan, Kate Stables and Gail Ann Dorsey. The trio of women appear like a gentle chorus between verses, as though meant to soothe Berninger’s unquiet mind, only they’re not singing his words – they deliver a haunting interpolation of Thinking Fellers Local Union 282’s “Noble Experiment,” which doesn’t sound far off from your local church choir in their hands. “Not in Kansas” doesn’t sound much like any National song before it, and of all the experiments they attempt on the album, this one seems to be the most, well, noble. – Holly Hazelwood
11. Vampire Weekend: “Harmony Hall” [Columbia]
Imagine, if you will, that the Vampire Weekend that made Vampire Weekend, instead of going on to make the beautiful and weird Contra and Modern Vampires of the City, continued the stylistic path set by their self-titled debut and continued making Paul Simon-indebted, sun-drenched pop songs. You can forgive those who felt like Father of the Bride was a setback after the near-perfect Modern Vampires – the experimental sounds of those albums had the departed Rostam Batmanglij’s fingerprints all over them – but at its core, Father is the culmination of the sound created with songs like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Mansard Roof.”
“Harmony Hall,” our first taste of the album, sounds like the last two albums didn’t happen, but their artistic maturity remained. At the center, as always, is Ezra Koenig’s clear voice, and as he did with Modern Vampires, here, he tackles the puzzles that come with aging: “I thought that I was free from all that questionin’/ But every time a problem ends, another one begins,” he sings on the song’s bridge. As the chorus hits, the song’s breezy fingerpicking stops being the focal point, being replaced by a bright burst of color that sounds like it could be on Screamadelica. It performs a constant, infectious ebb and flow, with some “ooh-ooh”’s thrown in just for kicks.
Koenig’s songwriting knocks it out of the park, too. He reflects on old-world anti-Semitic sterotypes and boils down our nation’s collective rage: “Anger wants a voice/ Voices wanna sing.” He even throws in a nod to his own past writing: “I don’t wanna live like this/ But I don’t wanna die.” Father of the Bride may be an uneven hour of music, but “Harmony Hall” allows the best possible gateway into the wonders and joys found within it. – Holly Hazelwood
10. Burial: “State Forest” [Hyperdub]
For someone who could lay claim to being the most important artist of the decade in his genre, Burial doesn’t ascribe that level of importance to himself or his music. His releases aren’t events the way that they have become for the likes of Aphex Twin; he releases ideas as he develops them, putting out only a few songs at a time. As such, it would be easy to dismiss “State Forest,” one of two new pieces from Burial this year, as something of a disappointment. It’s a beatless ambient piece that takes a while to really take shape. Listen closer, though, and one begins to hear a new dimension of Burial’s music taking shape. While he has often played with and recontextualized the tropes of electronic music in the past, “State Forest” feels less like a recontextualization of ambient and more like a full-blown committal to the sound. The track is trance-like, the sort of thing that could be incidental music. Over time, though, its various parts reveal themselves; samples of recognizable tunes and sounds from everyday life become more apparent and add layers to a deceptively simple track. It builds slowly, reaching its apex right at the very end, and over its eight-minute run time, it never drags or meanders for its own sake. The final product is the most dreamlike thing Burial has ever produced; after years of taking the world around him and cutting-and-pasting it into aural art, he has entered a realm that only he could conceive of. – Kevin Korber
9. Richard Dawson: “Jogging” [Weird World]
Richard Dawson’s first solo single since 2017’s mud-covered, medieval Peasant, welcomed listeners back into recognizable, modern times and seems to perfectly capture the era of Twitter and impending doom with synchronous feelings of anxiety and disappointment with humanity delivered with a dry, postmodern wit. Massive, driving drums propel “Jogging” forward with a sonic palette not unfamiliar to myriad sports-movie training montages while Dawson unloads a Kozelek-ian, stream-of-consciousness exploration of a man’s attempt to counteract his paranoia with running and Beta-blockers prescribed by his doctor.
Over “Jogging”’s relentless six-minutes, Dawson paints a detailed image of this isolated character and his isolated country, all the while giving 2019 some of its best, most memorable lyrical moments. Funny lines like, “One of the girls who works the check-out tuts under her breath and it destroys me for a week,” and “I thought I caught a busker sneak an ugly word into “Wonderwall” as I went by” stick with listeners almost purely out of their absurdity, while other verses, like the one in which the character’s Kurdish neighbors have a brick thrown through their window and the police turn a blind eye despite knowing who’s responsible, hit with an all-too-real potency.
The juxtaposition of Dawson’s funny, disheartening and somewhat mundane commentary and the intense energy of the drums, guitars and keys exaggerated to Olympian heights adds to “Jogging”’s hilarity and allows for feelings of triumph in little victories and steps in the right direction, even if those steps seem like they are actually going nowhere. – Evan Welsh
8. Solange: “Way to the Show” [Columbia]
As the title of Solange’s brilliant When I Get Home indicates, Knowles’ work is positioned towards the future. It’s a segment of a sentence clothed in certainty, and “Way to the Show” is the black tube top and high-rise spandex shorts that cling to its skin. “Call me, even on the way to the show/ Way to the show, candy paint down to the floor,” the track commences. The song’s subject seems apparent at first: she wants to hear the voice of her lover, even if she’s en route to a concert. Then time and space start to spread and slip. Could she be saying “wait ‘til the show”? Is the show she’s describing more intimate than even a tiny desk concert with Bob Boilen? (Wait, when is Solange gonna perform at the tiny desk?)
The track takes classic hip-hop’s concept of wordplay and tosses it into the Tesseract. Instead of progressing to an obvious pun for listeners following closely enough to understand the joke, Solange scatters a handful of ideas whose multiple meanings across time pile up in a single time. Take that candy paint, for example. Part auto feature, part measure of desire and part transparent gateway to reflection, it is all these things at once and dripping down to the floor before and after we speak. “You can get it,” she offers. “I’ma come and get it,” she insists.
Musically, this is the squelching, quick-draw, G-funk sibling of Outkast’s “Stankonia (Stanklove).” It’s Thundercat’s “Them Changes” landing a triple axel. Better yet, it’s all of the above and also just Solange doing her thing, dancing out her own paces in a backlot for a film that never deserved to be forgotten in the first place. – Jeff Heinzl
7. Lana Del Rey: “The Greatest” [Polydor/Interscope]
Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell is her most accomplished album to date, the culmination of her career-long fixation with Americana aesthetics, and “The Greatest” is its wistful centerpiece. The warm, rising strings that introduce the song quickly drop out as Del Rey’s airy vocals come in over a single piano. Momentum accumulates as more instruments are slowly layered back into the mix, building towards the refrain that is perhaps the album’s most evocative couplet: “The culture is lit, and if this it, I had a ball / I guess I’m just burned out after all.” Here Del Rey is looking towards a future that everyday feels more assured in its doom-laden portent, but in doing so she’s also looking backward, making nostalgic reflections both personal (“I miss Long Beach and I miss you”) and tapped into a broader sense of American iconography (“I miss the bar where the Beach Boys would go / Dennis’ last stop before Kokomo”). “Those nights were on fire,” she continues. “We didn’t know that we had it all / But nobody warns you before the fall.” Hers is a potent summation of a dominant attitude among youth in American, a necessary jadedness in the face of the world’s seemingly imminent demise –– burning out as the world goes up in flames. The song gradually withers to a close, almost entirely collapsing as Del Rey, again left with only a single, fragile piano, issues a final appraisal, finding America’s past, present, and future intertwined in one last stanza: “Miss doing nothing most of all / Hawaii just missed the fireball / L.A.’s in flames, it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blond and gone / “Life On Mars” ain’t just a song / I hope the livestream’s almost on.” – Brendan Nagle
6. Purple Mountains: “Nights That Won’t Happen” [Drag City]
Perhaps the standout track from Purple Mountains’ exceptional self-titled album, the achingly delicate “Nights That Won’t Happen” takes on a new, devastating resonance after the loss of bandleader David Berman (previously of beloved indie rock group Silver Jews) this past August. “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind,” he declares at the top, his scratchy baritone carried by soft acoustic guitar strums and a glassy synth pad. Upon the album’s release, an informed listener would likely read the song as a reaction to the recent passing of Berman’s mother, an act of working through the complex emotions that come with the loss of a loved one –– and he suggested as much in a few interviews. But when Berman took his own life a few weeks later, it became hard not to hear Purple Mountains, and “Nights That Won’t Happen” in particular, as a sort of goodbye. However, as difficult as it can be to reimmerse oneself in the song, repeated listens eventually leave one with a sense of peacefulness, rather than pain. “Ghosts are just old houses dreaming people in the night,” he assures us. “Have no doubt about it, hon/the dead will do alright.” We can take some comfort in knowing that, if nothing else, Berman’s own “suffering,” the despair that courses through his entire body of work, is finally “done.” – Brendan Nagle
5. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: “Hollywood” [Ghosteen/Bad Seed]
“Hollywood” arrives at the end of an album filled with pain and loss. Ghosteen is the first album from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds to be fully written after the death of Cave’s teenage son. While every song on the record is infused with Cave’s mourning, “Hollywood” takes the deepest dive into the near-immeasurable impact of such a tragedy.
“Hollywood” is built on a foreboding pulse as a slow-moving synth line etches out a melody, alongside touches of piano. The song feels fragmented, like the pieces want to come together but there’s a black hole of grief at the center. Cave’s voice has never sounded more harrowed, noting the suffocating nature of loss as he sings, “There’s little room for wonder now, and little room for wildness too.”
Halfway through “Hollywood,” it reaches the depths of anguish, as Cave sings “The kid drops his bucket and spade/And climbs into the sun.” The music drops to a repeating, rhythmic glitch, as if the song itself can’t process the suddenness of his son’s passing. Cave switches to a falsetto to tell the Buddhist story of Kisa, who’s only hope to save her sick child comes from collecting a mustard seed from every house where no one had died. But every house had experienced loss. By the end, Kisa learns to accept her child’s death. Cave sings the proverb for the same lesson. He closes the record singing, “And I’m just waiting now, for peace to come,” coming to grips with his son’s death and the inevitability of his own. On a record with no easy answers to overwhelming sorrow, “Hollywood” is a hard journey through devastating hurt to strive for some measure of acceptance. – Joe Marvilli
4. FKA Twigs: “cellophane” [Young Turks]
FKA Twigs has always seemed almost extra-terrestrial and certainly extraordinary. Cultivating futuristic production, infection melody and outstanding song arrangement with equal style and aplomb, for every pop stonker she has put out, she’s matched it with the undefinable. “Cellophane” marks a true paradigm shift and captures FKA Twigs at her most stripped down and vulnerable – her voice taking centre stage without the usual mask of wonky electronics – and ultimately, her most spectacular. Twigs’ vulnerability on “Cellophane” is her deadliest weapon as she pleads with a former partner “didn’t I do it for you?” in a voice so fragile it’s hard not to imagine her trembling with fear that she already knows the answer. Its musical characteristics are sparse – a rippling, slower than pond water piano over someone affecting a skeletal beat through gritted teeth, padded out by laboured reels of muted industrial noises. Synths fade in and out of focus while Twigs sings soft, simple words soaked in complex emotions. “I don’t want to have to share our love” she sings with a desperation that suggests her heart and conscience are too heavy to bear. As the song reaches its final moments, her voice reaches an ear-piercing tone, all but confirming this suspicion. The hopelessness is painfully obvious. As the song draws to a close, Twigs recognises that bystanders are “hoping [she’s] not enough”, immediately completing her metamorphosis from desperate to defiant. It should come as no surprise that Twigs would adopt a new approach on “Cellophane” and its parent album Magdalene. Having had invasive surgery to remove six fibroid tumours from her uterus, Twigs has been frank and open about the emotional and physical anguish that resulted. A candid Instagram post showed her pole dancing, something showcased further in the music video for this, the first single taken from the album. Twigs is bold; both in display of bodily autonomy and in display of emotion. – Danny Kilmartin
3. Big Thief: Not [4AD]
On its own, “Not,” off of Big Thief’s second instant classic of the year, is a virtuoso piece of songcraft, capturing the ineffable by eliminating that which cannot describe it. While trying to grasp what it is about a lover that drives her mad, Adrienne Lenker keeps bypassing easy answers as her eyes dart all over body parts and accessories that catch her eye. As she keeps going, her voice starts to crack and warble with the mounting excitement of thinking about it all, and finally the tension explodes in a solo that would make Neil Young proud. It is one of the finest love songs rock has pumped out in some time. Yet that is not the whole story. Every year there’s at least one song that makes an impact not only for its exceptional quality and perfect timing but a crossover multimedia moment that brings its virtues into sharp focus. In 2019, that song was “Not,” and its moment came on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in the finest glimpse of a band making the most of their TV spot since Future Islands left David Letterman giddy with disbelief. All of the song’s modulated intensity was only compounded before a live audience who likely had no clue who the band was before they started playing and clearly would never forget them afterward. As rock continues to stubbornly live past every eulogy given for it, “Not” is but the latest proof of just how much the old, shambling corpse can still move. – Jake Cole
2. Sharon Van Etten: “Seventeen” [Jagjaguwar]
If you’re writing a pop song about being a teenager, you’re likely to hone in one age more than any other: 17. The Beatles saw her, just that age, standing there; The Magnetic Fields smoked clove cigarettes at that age; Homer Simpson had a very good beer at that age. It’s evocative of youth on the cusp of adulthood, with all the anxieties and excitement of the changing body, and that’s what Sharon Van Etten taps on one of the standouts from her fifth album, Remind Me Tomorrow. That title might tell you she’s putting you off, but this anthem of reminiscence, and the whole album, her first in five years, is thick with the wisdom of maturity.
The song fades in cinematically, opening up a scene in which Van Etten has a young kid pegged. “I used to be seventeen/ Now you’re just like me.” She’s not old enough to get heckled back, “Ok, boomer”—she’s technically a millennial. But the next generation won’t listen anyway – that’s what the young do. Yet Van Etten, with a husky conviction, declares, with hope for the future “I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown.” Epic keyboards swarm around a swampy beat like synth-pop on ‘ludes as she imparts a thrilling, catchy wisdom that pulses with a bassline that gives “Seventeen” a life perspective far beyond its years. – Pat Padua
1. Purple Mountains: “That’s Just the Way I Feel” [Drag City]
“The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting / And that’s just the way that I feel,” David Berman sings on “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” the opening track to his debut recording under the Purple Mountains moniker. It’s repeated several times throughout the song, but essentially doubled in the track’s closing moments. Had he not chosen to end his life less than a month after the album’s release, it would’ve read as little more than yet another sad bastard line in a career full of them. Instead, in hindsight it now comes off as a preemptive notice that, this time around, things were a bit more real.
Of course it’s easy to speculate well after the fact, particularly with an artist who essentially made a career out of such melancholic sentiments. But as it stands, “That’s Just the Way That I Feel” is a brutally honest track on what came to be – to borrow from Jackson Browne – Berman’s opening farewell. Because of this, it’s an extremely bitter pill wrapped in the sweetest of aural chocolate, the song itself a gorgeously galloping bit of Elephant 6-esque indie pop replete with warmly warbling horns, barroom piano, jangling guitars and a melody that dares you not to sing along.
But it’s hard to choke out lyrics like: “Things have not been going well / This time I think I finally fucked myself / … I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion / … I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been” along with Berman, particularly in the wake of his suicide. Regardless of the tragic outcome and Berman’s decision to put an abrupt end to such a remarkable late period renaissance, “That’s Just the Way That I Feel” and the rest of the Purple Mountains album is the perfect aural encapsulation of the batshit crazy year that has been 2019. – John Paul