2019 was a nightmare. An unrelenting, unending absolute bloody nightmare. And pop music knew it. 2019 was defined by downtempo rhythm, minor chords, mumbled something-or-others and nihilism. The mainstream was cripplingly self-aware and flatly refused the high emotion and big, dumb choruses that typically define it. We were all very tired.
Yet, a few beams of light were able to pierce the grey. Here are some of the best singles released this year – and yes we’ve tried to keep it mainstream. We’ve put together a playlist below so you can listen along. Props to ‘Nothing Breaks Like a Heart‘, the Weeknd feature ‘Lost In The Fire‘ & ‘Cruel‘ by Glowie which were all very good, but didn’t quite make it.
So without further ado…
LANY – Thick & Thin
No convention is eschewed or cliché subverted in this breakup sad-bop, but this is pure pop pleasure. It’s about the very particular kind of breakup where out of nothing your partner decides that, actually, they hate everything about you and think they’re wasting their time dating you. That disbelief is captured perfectly by Paul Klein’s wide-eyed everyman. Hook upon hook, soothing synth tones and bags of gated reverb on the beat. Late 80s sunset perfection.
YBN Cordae – RNP (feat. Anderson .Paak)
There’s nothing new or refreshing about two young rappers peacocking over clout and money, but this is better than most. Just tongue-in-cheek enough to keep you onside and with great interplay between Paak and YBN, with J. Cole producing. Sprightly, self-aware and imbued with some wry wit.
Dominic Fike – 3 Nights
Dom Fike may be innately punchable, and his semi-acoustic bop may be closer to Jack Johnson than the face-tattoo rappers he idolises, but call a spade a spade: this song slaps. Oddball chorus that only half makes sense regardless of how you spin it, and a general feeling that maybe this lyric sheet was only half finished, can’t dispel the intangible something-something about this that sticks to you like glue.
Kim Petras – Clarity
2019 was the year Kim Petras became a gay icon, not just for her club-brat persona, but also for a string of bona fide anthems that culminated with the Clarity album. The title track is short but perfect – from the sweet burble of the opening arpeggio to Petras’ own Regina George approximation in the lyrics. Pure confection.
Georgia – About Work The Dancefloor
Georgia serves Robyn via the Berlin club scene. The title and refrain are basically nonsense but everything else clicks together perfectly. Gleams from every surface, and rides a pulsing 80s synthline to a thrilling climax. The sort of dancefloor devotional you rarely see this side of Kylie – it sounds terrific.
Ariana Grande – break up with your boyfriend, i’m bored
Ari seemed destined to be pop’s equivalent of “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” until the one-two punch of Sweetener and thank u, next hitting mere months apart. Now it’s definitely her wedding; we’re just crashing it. ‘break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored’ may seem like a petty song about homewrecking but crucially it’s delivered with a wink, unlike the crass bravado of ‘7 rings’. She’s asking the guy to tank his entire life because, well, she’s bored. It’s something to do right?
Lana Del Rey – Doin’ Time
Lana covers Sublime makes a good headline, but the results are better still. She absolutely owns this, emulating the melody on a harp (of course) and retaining the playful tone. Lana doesn’t really do flippancy, but her deadpan flow hides surprising flexibility. A song that could feasibly be queued up at a house party without causing an argument. ‘Doin’ Time’ sees her retain her doomy retro-kitsch sound whilst producing something with a little more bustle.
No Rome – Talk Nice
No Rome may borrow the cadence of Matt Healy a little too readily, but spins it anew on ‘Talk Nice’. A breezy, colourful near-breakup song about enjoying the minutiae of life and worrying. Mostly about money but about staying together too. The lovely central hook is a simple progression but really sparkles under production from Dirty Hit mainstay Jonathan Gilmore. College rock for the student loan generation.
Billie Eilish – bad guy
A weirdo anthem that hit the mainstream with a sort of sledgehammer blow last seen via Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Demented but danceable, and adventurous but ultimately commercial. A minimalist blend of trap and pop that can feel a little bloodless, but also exciting and inventive. Proof that you can have fun with bald teenage nihilism: that “Duh!” hook is genius.
Katy Perry – Never Really Over
As with her love affair Katy Perry’s career is never really over. Witness failed to grab the attention of the listening public (despite three great singles) but she’s still going, although this stalled in the Top 20. A real shame: this is one of her best. A chorus delivered in staccato bursts shows either great vocal nuance from Perry or great skill behind the mixing board. A collab with Zedd, he brings some polish and subtle instrumentals, along with (more) unnecessary ticking clocks.
Post Malone – Take What You Want (feat. Ozzy Osbourne, Travis Scott)
For shame that the hardest rock song on this list comes from trap-pop. Finally makes good on the claims from ‘rockstar’ – it has Ozzy, it has Travis, it has a screeching Steve Vai style guitar solo, it has mandolins. Put simply: it sounds enormous, is enormous, and makes bedfellows of contemporary pop and crusty ’70s prog rock.
Death Cab For Cutie – To The Ground
Unlikely but exhilarating foray into krautrock (see also ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’) from indie lifers. Booming machine-like beat evokes tyre-on-tarmac, while a lithe and sinister guitar figure persists amid the din. A song not about the graphic car crash that fills the first verses, but the unavoidable creep of nature as the scene is submerged beneath snaking vines and foliage – till it was like nothing ever happened. Metaphors – here and present. The assault of strings and synths in the bridge might be a bit Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, but what an amazing slice of power rock drama.
Sam Smith – Dancing With a Stranger (feat. Normani)
Platinum-selling warbler finally comes good, with a taut electropop slow jam that smoulders with intensity. A song about the pathetic, downright desperate need for attention in the aftermath of heartbreak. When pop artists write about breakup rebound they usually frame it as empowering – ‘Dancing With a Stranger’ confronts the depressing, regretful reality.
This isn’t whole-cloth reinvention but it is the first truly great song that Smith has ever written. Murky atmosphere with surprising depth, plus heartache that feels real and avoids the wailing-in-the-bath histrionics of past singles. And of course Normani owns the piece.
Chromatics – You’re No Good
Perpetually gloomy Portland synthpop act gave us something conspicuously upbeat with ‘You’re No Good’. It’s still in a minor key and Ruth Radelet’s gorgeous sigh is still a bit wide-eyed and Lynchian, but this sounds like the most tasteful song Bananarama never released. Glass candy with a bubblegum centre.
Dua Lipa – Don’t Start Now
Dua returns in the guise of French house. Same old attitude – ‘Don’t Start Now’ picks up where ‘New Rules’ left off in the study of male ineptitude. Fond memories of ‘Around The World’ & ‘Lady (Hear Me Tonight)’ flit about this, and by the time the cow bells and ludicrous string hits pop up resistance seems impossible. Should have been a summer song – you can just picture it blasting from a poolside boombox on an August afternoon.
Sam Fender – The Borders
Consistent chugging riff and krautrockish beat isn’t so much ‘Autobahn’ as ‘Under The Pressure’ by The War On Drugs. It’s an epic about the ordinary, a symphony for streetlife. Fender can sound jaded and hopeful at the same time, and while to him the world is unfair and life a struggle, he can’t help but perceive it wide-eyed, and so while ‘The Borders’ has no happy ending (or any ending really) it feels triumphant and valedictory, almost in spite of the harsh truth.
It’s a pretty clear riff on Springsteen in full ‘Born to Run’ mode, but Fender is able to tap into what he did so well: telling a story through a series of richly detailed vignettes. ‘The Borders’ chronicles two boys dove-tailed in working class struggle: absent parents, drink and pills, depression. It’s brutal and beautiful and shines like a black eye.
TRESOR – Aphrodite (feat. Beatenburg)
An irrepressible bop built on a glassy electric piano figure and afrobeat shuffle. TRESOR hails from the Republic of Congo and brings South African band Beatenburg along for a fusion of R&B and soft-rock. There’s a studio perfection to this you rarely see: it sounds like 70s yacht rock. Among the brash sounds of mainstream pop this charming slow-burner sounds all the sweeter.
Charli XCX – Gone (feat. Christine and the Queen)
Bratty, whipsmart big beat pop. Charli XCX is still the smartest girl in the room, even if the mainstream has been slow to catch on. Despite the lyrical pell mell (“Why do we keep when the water runs?” is nonsense) this is the sort of unrepentant, 12-gauge pop that you seldom hear anymore. Ed Sheeran’s ‘I Don’t Care’ described social awkwardness in lesser strains (and greater sales) but this is the final word on introvert pop.
Normani – Motivation
Pop-as-workout from Fifth Harmony survivor Normani. Ari provides a co-write, and her influence can be felt in those hollow kicks, but this is Normani’s show. A barnstorming debut that bursts with energy, channelling the shameless maximalism of early-00s Destiny’s Child with bursts of fake sax and clattering beats. As pure and full proof pop pleasure there’s simply no better.
Lil Nas X – Old Town Road
Either so bad it’s great, or vice versa, this is less actual song and more pop culture moment. Enjoy telling future generations that hey, you just had to be there.
Alas, rather than ushering in a whole new genre of country-trap or simply blowing genre away once and for all (as we hoped) ‘Old Town Road’ seems destined for the gimmickosphere. It’s probably already a dead meme by the time you’re reading this.
Samm Henshaw – The World Is Mine
Borrows the bongo shuffle of ‘Apache‘, the flow of Nas’s ‘Made You Look’ and the tempo-shifts of ‘1 Thing’ by Amerie, and comes out the other side something thrillingly of a piece. Shamelessly grandstanding chorus falls like a carpet bomb, proving a breathless counterpoint to the jaunty shuffle of the beat. A superhero theme for a ’70s blaxploitation movie – thrilling, brilliant and unbeatable.