Earlier this month, our music critics made sense of the best songs and best albums of 2019. That’s all well and fine, but that’s not what we’re here for today. Instead, we’ve gathered to celebrate the musical moments that ruled our year that aren’t making any year-end lists. Some are songs, some are full-length albums, and some happened on social platforms. Not all are strict “guilty pleasures,” but all of them are things we were irrationally passionate about.
The Lonely Island, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience
Dan Devine: I was probably going to like The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience no matter what it actually sounded like. Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer hit the bull’s-eye of my comedic sensibility with alarming frequency. (The theme song to Awesometown rolls to the front of my brain a few times a year and stays there for about a week; watching “Space Olympics” is a bigger part of my writing process than I’d care to admit; Hot Rod is perfect and Popstar might somehow be even better; etc.) Plus, I was born in 1982, and as a kid, my burgeoning affinity for baseball came with understanding that monstrous dinger-mashers José Canseco and Mark McGwire were both kind of ridiculous and also cool as hell. I didn’t know quite what to expect from Samberg and Schaffer rapping in character as late-’80s Canseco and McGwire throughout an 11-song, 25-minute soundtrack to a Netflix “visual poem,” but the conceit sounded about right for the collective. “This’ll be funny,” I figured, and then I pushed play.
Here’s the thing: Nobody would’ve batted an eye if this project was just about silly wigs and dick boasts, with minimal calories burnt on stuff like lyrics and production, so long as the jokes were good. But it’s not. These songs fucking knock.
The beat on “Jose & Mark” does not have to sound extremely good when played at ignorant enough volume on the standard sound system of a 2018 Honda CR-V to rattle the car seats in the back—you know, hypothetically—but it does. “Uniform On” does not have to be the best early Beastie Boys song MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D never recorded, but it is. “Let’s Bash” does not have to be a legitimate hyphy track, but it is. “IHOP Parking Lot” does not have to be a pitch-perfect candy-coated New Edition–era R&B earworm (right up until the part where it turns satanic), but it is. “Oakland Nights” does not have to feature a titanic hook from motherfucking Sia (as played in the “visual poem” by Sterling K. Brown, natch) but it does.
All along the way, Samberg and Schaffer jam every bar full of jokes on the specific themes they’ve set out to highlight in the project—everything you remember about 1988, a Costacos Brothers love letter in Oakleys and neon Zubaz, but also the loneliness of pursuing excellence and the corners we can paint ourselves into trying to fill the holes in us where our parents’ love was supposed to be (seriously!)—and carry it all off with completely credible rapping-ass rapping. That this all works as a joke, and as a much weirder and more engaging piece of visual culture, is fine enough. That it’s a half-hour of rap worth returning to without actually feeling guilty about? That’s downright shocking. Turn the volume up, push play, and shake four halves of butt. The classiest shit is what comes next.
Griselda (Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine, Westside Gunn)
Justin Sayles: If you were alive and listening to New York rap music in the 1990s, you probably remember how everyone looked so goddamn cold all the time. The music matched that vibe: Wu-Tang’s early work sounded like it was recorded in RZA’s dungeon; Mobb Deep turned jazz samples into paranoid, claustrophobic classics; Boot Camp Clik were as much of a part of the Brooklyn streets they called home as the street lamps. Rap was never chillier, and it was never better.
Understanding this provides the framework for understanding Griselda, a three-man crew out of Buffalo, New York, with an affinity for Kith and Virgil Abloh that has improbably become somewhat of a mainstream concern. After years of pumping out many, many releases in relative obscurity, Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine, and Westside Gunn bubbled up in 2019. The three MCs, all in their mid-to-late 30s, signed a management deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in August, and in late November, they released their first collaborative album on Eminem’s Shady Records. Along the way, they’ve linked up with 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, Raekwon, Jadakiss, Black Thought, and a plethora of other heavy hitters from previous rap golden ages. They even got an NPR feature. And hell, forget about buying their merch.
There’s no easy place to start with the trio; their work is mostly scattered throughout solo mixtapes, and just when you think you’re up to date, Westside Gunn will drop a new project or Benny will link up with Smoke DZA for an EP. The songs often lack hooks, and many are named after old wrestlers. The lyrics are all tough-guy, crime-pays bravado: “I stopped robbin’, gave the mask and the gloves a rest / I flew to Cali just to find a new drug connect / And I still got a good rapport with all the plugs I met,” Conway raps on Benny’s “Dirty Harry.” The beats will pummel you: hard drums and two-note piano samples with occasional strings that can only be described as harrowing. There’s no point in trying to be a Griselda completist, and becoming one will likely make you a nihilist. But if you’re inclined, and if you’re missing that old New York aesthetic, there’s a lot of worthwhile stuff here to immerse yourself in. Like “Brains on the Basquiat,” or “Cruiser Weight Coke,” or Conway’s “E.I.F.” (That stands for “everyone is food,” in case you’re wondering.) The weather’s not getting warmer any time soon, so may as well as grab your Helly Hansen and dive in.
100 gecs, 1000 gecs
Cory McConnell: 1000 gecs hits like a Spring Breakers TikTok fever dream, like sipping a black cherry Four Loko through 3-D straw glasses while watching Japanese game shows in the food court of a monster truck rally. Recommending that your friend listen to 100 gecs is an experience similar to pawning off the videotape from The Ring—you know it might do them harm, but you just need someone to see what you’re seeing so you don’t go fucking crazy. By the third song, you’ve been subject to chiptune ecstasy-pop, death metal growls, murder synths, ska chants, and a lot of bragging about trucks. While 100 gecs may draw from the likes of PC Music, Charli XCX, Sleigh Bells, the interludes on the Jai Paul album, and various Auto-Tune–indebted rappers, 1000 gecs doesn’t actually sound like any of those things. It’s violent, beautiful, chaotic, and catchy as hell. It also is extremely Not For Everyone, and might leave you wondering how many gecs is too many. On “gecgecgec,” that question is put to the test, as a text-to-speech voice says “gec” 58 times before the song crumbles in on itself, collapsing in a pile of Skrillex wubs and breaking into a legitimately beautiful refrain. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s rare that we get to experience the “what the hell am I listening to?” feeling that 100 gecs provide on every song. You could say that as an album, 1000 gecs is the perfect funhouse mirror to hold up to our confusing times, but nah. This is way stranger than anything else going on in 2019.
John Mayer Improvising to Spotify Jam Tracks on Instagram Live
Katie Baker: Something I spend a fair amount of time thinking about, not as a value judgment or anything but just as a fascination, is the fact that so many celebrities probably spent a good chunk of their lives being absolute weirdos. Those pro athletes we love? A lot of them felt it was normal to shoot, like, a thousand free throws every day after school while all their friends went to the mall. Hot, award-winning actors? Extreme theater dorks post-glow-up. Musicians? See “athletes” above, except substitute guitar licks for batting cage swings. I’m convinced that a good 90 percent of the lame, cocky, and unacceptably offensive behavior that John Mayer has exhibited over the years was overcompensation for having spent so much time alone with his amp in his formative years. But ever since he nearly got himself canceled, he has dropped some of the posturing and returned to his obsessive roots.
Mayer’s performances with Dead & Co. have endeared him to many unsuspecting people in the past couple of years, to everyone’s surprise, but to me he’s at his back-to-basics best in this random video, which was ripped from a September appearance by Mayer on Instagram Live. He spends 30 minutes improvising over various bluesy background tracks he found on Spotify, from “jump-blues” to something called “swamp blues” that even he has never heard of. He makes mistakes, and makes guitar-faces, and is a model of encouragement to all the aspiring guitarists out there. Perhaps one of them, feverishly consuming Mayer’s content at all hours, will emerge as another generational musical talent with a weird personality one day, and the beautiful cycle will continue.
Kate Halliwell: I don’t consider K-pop a guilty pleasure, or an irrational favorite, or whatever creative wording we’re using to make us feel like we’re not ashamed of our choices on this list—Lord knows I talk and tweet and write about K-pop far too often to be remotely embarrassed of my interest. But there is one K-pop group that I do feel a little guilty for adding to my ever-growing list of faves this year, and that’s Seventeen. It’s not because they’re not talented, or because they’re not worthy of my time (or yours!). It is, quite frankly, because they have 13 members. And that is so, so many boys.
I used to think my brain had a limited capacity for how many individual K-pop stars it could retain, from names to positions to hit songs; now I know that to be untrue, because thanks to the veritable football team that is Seventeen, I unlocked my previously unknown capacity for infinite stan-dom. Now I’ll just continue adopting new groups until the end of time, or until my brain explodes; whichever comes first. I would rather not disclose how long it took me to learn everyone’s name in Seventeen, nor how long it took me to decide that I would take a bullet for each and every one of them. (It was not very long. They are all my children now.) Smash play on that music video for “HIT,” and tell me you’re not the slightest bit ready to welcome some of that infectious energy into your life. Seventeen gave me, as the kids say, no choice but to stan.
The Frozen 2 Soundtrack
Me watching Frozen 2 in the theater: “LOL, these songs are trash. Not a ‘Fixer Upper’ in the bunch.”
Me after 48 hours of the kids blasting the soundtrack on repeat: “Well, at least this is suitable bedtime music, minus Olaf’s gigantic, serenity-smashing scream in the middle of ‘When I Am Older.’”
Me after 72 hours: “I wonder how much Weezer got paid for this.”
Me after 96 hours: “‘Lost in the Woods’ should win an Oscar, and Peter Cetera should sing it at the ceremony.”
Me after 120 hours: “I wonder if I could pull off ‘Into the Unknown’ at karaoke.”
Me after 144 hours, deep in the B-sides: “There’s just something magical about the way Kristen Bell sings the word fjord.”
Me after 168 hours: [Tears up on the drive to school when they work “All Is Found” into the climax of “Show Yourself.”]
Me after 192 hours, rewatching the original Frozen again for some reason: “LOL, these songs are trash.”
Mark Ronson Featuring Yebba, “Don’t Leave Me Lonely”
Michael Baumann: Maybe this isn’t an ideal choice for a “guilty pleasures” list, because I feel absolutely zero guilt for loving it the way I do. Well, I do feel a little guilt for the giant man-crush I have on Mark Ronson, who in my opinion is just the coolest motherfucker in the world, which is a big achievement for a British person. All he does is apply hair product, wear snazzy clothes, and carpet-bomb the airwaves with bangers.
But he doesn’t sing, so when he releases his own music he uses some other artist as his mouthpiece—most famously Bruno Mars in “Uptown Funk”—which turns his solo albums into a rotating cavalcade of stars, which I always enjoy. His latest, Late Night Feelings, features lead vocals by such renowned artists as Miley Cyrus, Camila Cabello, Lykke Li, and King Princess, but my favorite of the bunch is “Don’t Leave Me Lonely,” with Yebba on lead vocals.
This song has so much get-up-and-go it’ll make you jump up and down and elbow your neighbor in the face, but it’s also unbearably sad in composition as well as in lyrics. The consistent syncopation and shift from major to minor chords in the chorus capture a very particular emotional state, which is that of dancing in a desperate but probably futile attempt to keep oneself from breaking down into tears. And man, we’ve all been there.
Kenny Beats’s The Cave
Sean Yoo: Early this year, producer Kenny Beats started a YouTube series in which he invites his rapper friends to his studio to essentially hang out and make music. In each episode, Kenny crafts a beat according to the rapper’s current tastes, and the rapper then proceeds to freestyle a 16. You’re basically watching friends who happen to be talented musicians vibe together and create, for the most part, good music. The series is currently on its second season with more than a dozen videos to show for it, and some videos have amassed more than a million views. One episode in particular became a viral sensation; comedian Zack Fox entered The Cave and left with a song called “Jesus Is the One (I Got Depression).” The video has over 4 million views on YouTube and hit no. 1 on Spotify’s Viral 50.
What works so well in this series and what makes it so entertaining is the already established rapport Kenny has with the artists that come on The Cave. Fans crave content that features their favorite artists just hanging out and being themselves, which is becoming increasingly rare in today’s landscape. The Cave succeeds in that aspect thanks to Kenny’s relationships and ability to make the artists feel comfortable. They are in a setting familiar to them with a person they trust, and that combination leads viewers to feel like a fly on the wall watching a wildly engaging product.
Jimothy, “Getting Burberry Socks”
Andrew Gruttadaro: Some of the most glorious pieces of pop culture are ones that by all accounts should be bad, but by some force of magic are actually good. The following should be bad:
- A song about socks
- A song about Burberry socks
- A song about how Burberry socks make a man feel
- A song about how Burberry socks make a man—who looks like he was bitten by the Lacoste alligator and then became the worst superhero ever—feel
- A song about how Burberry socks make a man—who looks like he was bitten by the Lacoste alligator and then became the worst superhero ever—feel, that also includes said man seductively saying “English, English, English” over and over again
But by some force of magic, “Getting Burberry Socks” is good, with its bizarre solitary focus, its DIY beat, and its extreme Britishness. You can have your anthems, your ponderous odes—I’ll take my song from the guy who’s feeling hella English.
”Here Come the Sixers”
Kate Knibbs: OK, I realize that the Philadelphia 76ers throwback theme song “Here Come the Sixers” was extremely not released in 2019. However, this was the year I personally became aware of this song, so whatever! The Ringer is home to a rich tradition of Philadelphia sports fandom—my former coworker Lindsay Zoladz supported the Sixers, while my other former coworker JJ Redick used to actually play for them, for example—and thus I was thrust into a workplace situation where the song became impossible to ignore. (One VERY easy way to make some extra money is to bet somebody how long it’ll take my dear colleague Tyler Tynes to bring up his hometown in conversation, as long as you place your bet on “under one minute.”) As a dual Bulls and Raptors fan (we exist) I scoffed at the idea that the Sixers had a good theme song … until I heard it … and it was literally the greatest song I’d ever heard in my life???? And it became one of my most-played tracks of the year??? And now I have a soft spot in my heart for those wacky Sixers and their weird-pretzel-eating fans. 1-2-3-4-5-Sixers!!!!!! 10-9-8-76ers!!!!!!!
Skrillex Featuring Beam, “Mumbai Power”
Matt James: To be honest, I don’t have an ounce of guilt in my body about listening to Skrillex in 2019. To the general populace, he might have existed only as a brief fever dream of the early 2010s—a Monster Energy reimagining of fax machine sounds—but to many music fans, the eight-time Grammy winner is an immensely talented producer with an abnormally eclectic musical mind. In just the past few years, he’s been behind the laptop with FKA Twigs, Mariah Carey, Zac Brown Band, Ed Sheeran, Ty Dolla $ign, Incubus, Lykke Li, and a number of other artists from a wide spectrum of genres. Skrillex has always pursued his musical curiosities earnestly and openly, even reuniting with his old post-hardcore band in 2017 (yes, those are his vocals).
This past July, Skrillex released two new songs on YouTube with accompanying videos that are merely screen recordings of his open project files. As YouTube user “Dude Chillz” put it:
For anyone who’s ever even dabbled in digital music production, looking under the hood of an acclaimed producer’s song is a fascinating and rare experience. It’s all there, out in the open for all the bedroom producers of the world to see and discuss and learn from. Out of fear or ego, most artists would never even consider sharing the inner workings of their songs. Skrillex, however, just thought it would be a fun thing to do that might help some people.
Londynn B., “I Can’t Change”
Jordan Ligons: Londynn B. clearly won the musical video round in the seventh episode of Netflix’s Rhythm & Flow. The top eight rappers in the competition had to write an original song and create a visually-pleasing video concept to present in front of the judges (Cardi B., Chance the Rapper, and T.I.) to move on to the next round. Really, the show was a guilty pleasure within itself, but “I Can’t Change” is catchy as hell, and it’s also a bona fide banger—all two minutes and 19 seconds of it. No money for bills / too broke for real connects with me on a spiritual level. Londynn B.’s speedy, choppy flow makes the sultry, almost whispery, hook all the better: I can’t change, I can’t change, yeah, yeah. By the time the last hook hit, everyone—the judges, the other contestants, the crowd, me at home—all had our heads bobbin’ and were singing along. It’s a whole vibe. I like catchy shit with a dope beat; sue me. I’ll never change.
Doja Cat, “Bottom Bitch”
Sayles: Maybe you became aware of Doja Cat through her pretty great debut LP, 2018’s Amala. Maybe you first saw her in the viral video she made for “Mooo!” in which she dons a cow-print two-piece, sips strawberry milkshakes, and sways to-and-fro in front of softcore hentai. Maybe it was her old tweets, which went viral in the bad way after that video blew up. Or maybe you still have no idea who she is—or if you do, maybe you’re underestimating her. That’s fine; she’ll be fine. But if you are ignoring her, you’re missing out on a versatile pop star uniquely suited to our fragmented, nostalgia-driven age.
Exhibit A: “Bottom Bitch,” off this year’s excellent Hot Pink produced by Doja and Yeti Beats and built around a sample of Blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again?” The video for the single lives up to its mall-punk roots. The 24-year-old Doja opens the clip by tagging a dick on a wall, then spends the rest of its 3:36 runtime skateboarding, throwing milkshakes at cops, and smashing a kick drum with a guitar. It’s true rock star shit, and it matches the swagger she raps with on the track. Yes, there’s a certain crassness to someone who was once called out for her homophobic tweets flirting with gay culture on a song like this. But Doja knows what she’s doing, and it won’t be long before we all do too.