The story of music in 2019 is one of insurgency. Old faithfuls like Taylor Swift and Drake are still reliable commercial performers, but their cultural footprints look downright small relative to where they were even a few years ago. In their place, a new class of stars has emerged: Lizzo dominated the charts on the strength of a two-year-old single, a teenager from Los Angeles proved she was one of our greatest pop auteurs, and an unknown rapper rode in on the back of a Nine Inch Nails sample and gave us one of the biggest singles of all time. Here, Justin Sayles and Micah Peters run down the 10 songs from 2019 that capture this moment in music, from the new stadium anthems to the smaller ones that left us spellbound. Tune in tomorrow as Rob Harvilla and Shea Serrano run down The Ringer’s best albums of the year.
10. Gang Starr featuring J. Cole, “Family and Loyalty”
The return of Gang Starr was a shock, to say the least: Guru, the legendary voice of the group, died in 2010, and his one-time partner DJ Premier hadn’t teased any new music in the years since. But this September, “Family and Loyalty” quietly appeared on streaming services. Perhaps most shocking of all: It sounded like classic Guru and Premier.
Posthumous releases are always tricky affairs, doubly so when they come nearly a decade after the artist has passed. They won’t tarnish a legacy, but they’re rarely essential and frequently skippable. The album “Family and Loyalty” was pulled from, November’s One of the Best Yet, is a mixed bag; it shines at times, while sounding like a cut-and-paste job at others, which makes sense given how it came together. But the album’s lead single, which also includes a stellar J. Cole guest appearance, stands tall in Gang Starr’s storied catalogue. The emotive piano-chop beat is a classic Premier drop in the vein of “Royalty,” and hearing Guru’s voice is comforting, like sliding on a pair of warm slippers. It helps that “Family and Loyalty” is worthy of bearing the Gang Starr name, but fans probably would’ve been happy to have it even if it weren’t. —Justin Sayles
9. Lana Del Rey, “The Greatest”
It’s difficult to describe “The Greatest” in a way that doesn’t make it sound like your typical Lana song. With the opening line “I miss Long Beach and I miss you, babe,” we’re already on three of her favorite topics: nostalgia, heartache, and Southern California. But in the next four-plus minutes, Lana weaves a rich tapestry, one that references the death of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, Kanye West’s bizarre few years, and the nuclear missile alert that went out to Hawiians in January 2018. By the time Lana’s citing David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” as an all-too-relevant totem for our modern world, you’re transfixed by her voice and cool-distance charm.
“The Greatest,” the best of her excellent singles from career highlight Norman Fucking Rockwell!, is the platonic ideal of a Lana Del Rey song: sweeping and dramatic, but also warm and intimate. For all the voice-of-her-generation weight placed on her shoulders when she emerged from her Lizzy Grant cocoon in 2011, it’s only now that she’s fully living up to that promise. —Sayles
8. Headie One, “Back to Basics”
I have this friend named Amir. Recently, Amir really wanted to know why I am always “putting on some British shit,” but there’s something refreshing and immense feeling about black music from the U.K. right now. It’s a privilege to watch a scene coming into its own in real time after the realization that having an American audience isn’t a necessary condition of “success”—whatever that means. Please don’t kill me for this, I don’t mean to force an unfair comparison, but I haven’t felt excitement like stumbling across U.K. drill rapper Headie One’s Music X Road since the summer I first heard Thug Motivation. It’s a collection of bombastic street anthems, for different streets; there’s “Both,” for getting money, “Back to Basics” for spending it on straps, and “Ball in Peace,” for beating the eventual case. It’s the pulverizing “Back to Basics” that’s stuck with me the longest, as it best showcases all that makes Headie addictive. His dead-eyed delivery, his sneaky dexterity, and of course, all of the road slang you’ll have to Google. Skepta is also there, as sharp as a knife: “Fast forward, now I turned starboy man I don’t stand on corners / two left feet when ya diamonds dancing, why ya shine look so awkward?” —Micah Peters
7. Big Thief, “Not”
The biggest gut-punch moment in any song this year comes courtesy of Adrianne Lenker on her band Big Thief’s single “Not.” Just over a third of the way through the folk-rock scorcher, after Lenker and her bandmates have spent two minutes building the emotional tension to a fever pitch, the guitar and bass drop out, leaving just the singer’s voice and drums. She’s unguarded in that moment, but she’s only playing rope-a-dope. “It’s not the hunger revealing,” she bellows as the other instruments come rushing back in. She sounds possessed, leaving you possessed by her ferocity. “Not” is the highlight of Big Thief’s highlight-filled 2019, in which the band released two (!!) instant-classic albums and established itself as the standard bearers for indie rock. But this song towers over any other they released year, and mostly any other released by anyone, thanks to Lenker’s ability to bowl you over. —Sayles
6. Ari Lennox, “BMO”
One of the internet’s purest joys this year has been Ari Lennox’s IG live, where you can tune in for hilarious fake Grammy acceptance speeches or commentary on the dizzying inanity of dog park politics. But it’s the strangest thing—even as she scores vicious, direct hits on detrimentally horny reply guys, her voice remains sultry and soothing. On “BMO,” from Lennox’s debut album Shea Butter Baby, her voice absolutely sizzles with late-night anticipation—when she purrs “gitchy gitchy yaya” on the hook, it floods your body with warmth and electricity. It sounds exactly like a summer crush should feel. —Peters
5. Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road”
The moment I’ll always remember from the 19 weeks when our nation was held captive by Lil Nas X and his calvary of guest artists came in late May, when he performed “Old Town Road” for a group of fifth graders in Ohio. They start by standing there confused during the intro, no idea how to behave even though the hottest artist in the world is about to launch into the biggest song of their young lives. And then, the opening chorus starts.
Lil Nas X Surprises Elementary School Kids With An 'Old Town Road' Performance
This is the best Lil Nas X [Complex]Posted by The Dad on Thursday, May 30, 2019
Some of the kids start a second too early. Others start a second too late. It doesn’t matter: By the time he’s through the first line, virtually every one of them is jumping up and down, creating the most adorable tremor imaginable. Moments like this don’t make Lil Nas X’s chart-gaming forgivable, but they are reminders that while “Old Town Road” may not be the best song of 2019, it is its most significant. Yes, the singer/rapper/mega-vi human shined a light on the country music world’s racism and sparked a million memes. But he also gave young kids their first favorite song. And if you grew up loving music, you know that there’s nothing more important than that. —Sayles
4. Tyler, the Creator, “EARFQUAKE”
It’s head-spinning to think the same man that ate a cockroach and then hung himself for shock value could arrange something as beautiful and earnest as “EARFQUAKE.” In a sense, Tyler has spent a decade carving out the latitude to make a record as outré as IGOR, which plays much like a collection of breakup songs he wrote about his own love life, for better singers. “EARFQUAKE” synthesizes strands of his past work (the cinematic quality of Wolf, the Charlie Wilson of Cherry Bomb, that one video where he’s eating a chicken wing and dancing to Playboi Carti’s “Half & Half”) and finds Tyler expressing something he rarely has in his career: sincerity. When he pleads “don’t leave, it’s my fault,” it’s gutting, and perfect. —Peters
3. Clairo, “Bags”
If Clairo’s 2019 made anything clear, it’s that she’s not an industry plant. Or rather, if she is, it doesn’t matter as long as she’s making songs like “Bags.” The lead single off the 21-year-old pop wunderkind’s Immunity, “Bags” is a tender, tentative song that sheds the lo-fi bedroom aesthetic that defined her earlier music. Working with superproducer Rostam will do that, but the song transcends even the loftiest expectations set for her. Over a gentle, infectious bass line, Clairo sings about the dissolution of an affair in a way that’s both mature and a reminder that being young and in love can be really fucking hard. “Can you see me? I’m waiting for the right time / I can’t read you, but if you want, the pleasure’s all mine,” she opens the chorus, before watching her love interest walk out the door with those titular bags. “It’s not about like betrayal or anything really jarring,” she wrote on a Genius annotation. “It’s really just about these small in-between moments that you blow up into one song. That you don’t really ever talk about.” “Bags” fully inhabits the smallness of those moments, and the result is the biggest moment of her promising career. —Sayles
2. Billie Eilish, “bad guy”
One of the best pieces of music criticism of the past five years is a Vine by a man named Chrish: “indie girl singer introduces us to her kitchen.” I’d argue that most of Billie Eilish’s debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? falls into the “banonies and avocadies” category, but I’d also argue that the growling, driving low end on “bad guy” is undeniable; even if its efficacy has been watered down by approximately 100,000 movie trailer syncs. Eilish’s voice is breathy, sly—as she pokes fun at the too-cool way you present yourself to the world, she ends up sounding pretty cool herself. —Peters
1. DaBaby, “Suge”
How I Met Your Mother was a terrible network sitcom that I watched every single season of, and thus can recall Barney’s ultra New Year’s Eve mix that was “all rise,” unlike regular, boring New Year’s Eve mixes, which crest and crash and ebb and flow. DaBaby, who raps sort of like a muscle car bursting through the gate at an impound lot, is also “all rise.” That over-the-top quality is central to the appeal of his music—on “Next Song,” which came out in 2018 when he was still going by Baby Jesus, he takes a bite out of the beat before it fully drops, and sets a scene in which he’s getting pulled over while hotboxing his car and getting road head. In the video, he tells the traffic cop to check out his artist page on Apple Music. The North Carolina rapper has no apparent interest in being important, but he became essential in 2019 by … having more fun than anyone else?
DaBaby moved more than a half-million units of his debut album Baby on Baby, earned his first No. 1 album with Kirk, also released this year, and reached ubiquity by devouring features like “Under The Sun”—which he performed wearing a hand cast, the result of knocking out a detractor during an altercation in a Louis Vuitton store. So yes, it’s been an “all rise” year for DaBaby—but it all began with “Suge,” a Baby on Baby standout where he parodies the imprisoned Death Row CEO. The bass line is infectious, in a 28 Days Later sort of way, and the raps are lively and direct. He’ll spend his label advance on your girl; he’ll also use it to put a price on your head. When DaBaby says he doesn’t follow any women on IG but has plenty following him, you realize that his shit-talk is like Zion Williamson’s layup package, which is actually just various types of dunks. And then you see his muscle suit in the video, which rolls in the quirkiness of Hype Williams–era Busta Rhymes and the irreverence of early 2000s Eminem. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, DaBaby spoke about not cutting corners when it comes to visuals, which arguably elevated him from a regional star to a national treasure. “I’ve probably spent like half a million dollars on videos this year, by myself, just me. I ain’t willing to settle for less,” he said. “With the type of artist that I’m capable of being, the creativity I’ve got, it’s just no way. You can’t cheat it.” DaBaby: Thank you for your service. —Peters