If there has been a defining sound of 2019 so far, it’s that there is not one single defining sound. But that doesn’t mean we’ve had a weak year as far as music goes, it’s been stronger than ever. Half-way through the year, we wanted to gather the best songs of 2019 so far, and it’s a truly all-encompassing mix – including defining viral smashes, the unstoppable march of K-pop, girl power and everyone’s favourite pop prodigy. You can also listen to the playlist here.
Blackpink, Kill This Love
Timed for release just before their defining appearance at Coachella, this is the K-pop queens at their most declarative about global domination. Pop mixes with hip-hop, Korean mixes with English, bombastic and triumphant horns just about hold this global mashup together. Destiny’s Child was the first and only female group to reach Number 1 on the iTunes chart with Lose My Breath, until Blackpink became the second with this boundary-smashing earworm of a record.
The Black Keys, Lo/Hi
Five years since we last heard a song from the Black Keys, they’re back with a straight-up shot of psychedelic rock. Dan Auerbach’s bluesy, fuzzy guitar and Patrick Carney’s stomping drum beat are now joined by the soulful backing voices of Leisa Hans and Ashley Wilcoxson. Truth be told, there are no surprises with Lo/Hi, but it’s a highly welcome return.
Lewis Capaldi, Someone You Loved
Scottish singer-songwriter Capaldi has become the somewhat improbable break-out star of the year. His album Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent has been the fastest-selling UK album of the year so far, beating Ariana Grande's thank u, next. And Someone You Loved topped the UK singles chart for seven weeks, its straightforward tale about a break up together with Capaldi’s raspy soulful voice capturing the imagination of a vast swathe of fans – none of whom are called Noel Gallagher.
Billie Eilish, bad guy
The remarkable rise of the 17-year-old pop prodigy explains the presence of two tracks on the list. bad guy is the biggest chart hit of Eilish’s budding and blossoming career, and shows off her subversive swagger and lyrics at its best. The song taunts someone for being a bad guy, before flipping the tables to suggest that she’s the real culprit. Its strange and surreal music video got the meme treatment online. The dark side never felt more fun.
Billie Eilish, bury a friend
A statement song from the album When We Are Sleeping, Where Do We Go that drips with eeriness, anxiety and playful trickery. The odd structure and vocal effects shows Eilish rewriting what pop stars offer to their fans, together with nightmarish lines like “What do you want from me? Why don't you run from me? What are you wondering? What do you know?”
The Spice Girls may have returned, but this year’s girl power anthem came in the form of Halsey’s first solo single since her chart-topper Without Me. Digging deep into her emo roots, and with aggressive production by Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat, Halsey transformed a break-up song into a universal cry of anger and frustration about being female in 2019. “I’m tired and angry, but somebody should be,” cries Halsey. Millions of voices agreed.
Holly Herndon, Frontier
Much has been discussed about the interaction between humans and machine on Holly Herndon’s third album, Proto, which sees her collaborating with vocal performers and the digital voice of an AI program called Spawn. One of its most stunning and human moments comes on Frontier. The song is inspired by Appalachian Sacred Harp singing; a single voice builds to a vocal crescendo that blurs the difference between human and machine, but in ways that feel comfortable, disorientating and heart-warming at the same time.
Hot Chip, Hungry Child
The English synth-pop band’s new album, A Bath Full Of Ecstasy, saw them return with reassuring confidence, especially with the sprawling, pulsating sound on its lead single, Hungry Child. Hot Chip worked with outside producers for the first time on this album, including French house legend Philippe Zdar, who died last month at the age of 52, and the song and album could not be more of a fitting tribute.
Karen O & Danger Mouse, Turn The Light
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer and Gnarls Barkley producer said this song sprung from their mutual appreciation of 90s R&B dance music. The laidback number is one of the most accessible singles on their Lux Prima album; Karen O's surprisingly languid vocals floating through the spacetime continuum of Danger Mouse’s infectious mid-tempo groove.
Lil Nas X feat Billy Ray Cyrus, Old Town Road (Remix)
Love it, hate it, or love to hate it, you can’t deny the song’s unstoppable power. We all know the story: A $30 YouTube beat, a Nine Inch Nails sample, a viral moment on TikTok that turned into a controversy about whether or not the song could be classified as country music, and the genius move of adding Billy Ray Cyrus to the remix. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Little Simz, Selfish
It may have been a long time coming, but the London rapper is finally achieving the success that has been predicted by everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Forbes magazine. So it’s perhaps appropriate that it comes in the slicker sound and form of Selfish, a song about haters always going to hate, and the rapper saying no-one can question what she’s earned through her own hard graft and creativity.
A riot of retro-funk filled with soul, sass and sexiness, Lizzo gives Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars a run for their money with this hit. Juice is Lizzo’s finest feeling-good-about-yourself song to date – along the way Lizzo praises the woman in the mirror, sips Grey Goose and makes fun of a man sliding into her DMs.
Rosalía feat J Balvin & El Guincho, Con Altura
Rosalía has been making waves with her contemporary take on flamenco, but this is the song that put her on the international map. An effortless fusion of traditional music with old-school reggaetón and a touch of Middle-Eastern inspiration, Rosalía created a sound all of her own – a sound that feels an awful lot like the future of global pop music.
Sharon Van Etten, Seventeen
A self-declared love letter to New York, Seventeen is up there amongst Van Etten’s finest work. It’s for anyone who has peered back into their past and wondered whether or not age has improved them. With Van Etten you don’t quite know the answer, especially when she cries “I know what you’re gonna be/You’ll crumple it up just to see/Afraid that you’ll be just like me!” But that’s life, and Van Etten brilliantly captures the jumbled emotions between nostalgia and hindsight on this track.
slowthai, Nothing Great About Britain
A snarling, pessimistic portrait of Britain from the street level – covering Brexit, class warfare, and widening inequality – but told with bluntness, wit and wordplay. slowthai makes a mockery of Britishness, but he also celebrates his country, in part through the clear doffing of his cap to a host of musical influences including Sex Pistols, The Streets and Dizzee Rascal.
Sleater-Kinney, Hurry On Home
Breathless, bold and urgent, this blistering track is the first from the riot grrrl legend’s upcoming album produced by St Vincent. Carrie Brownstein’ relentless desire (“You know I’m dress down-able, uptown-able, hair grab-able, grand slam-able”) is powered by chunky guitar riffs and drums, pulling us all the way through to its literally breathless conclusion.
Tyler, The Creator, Earfquake
Originally written with Justin Beiber in mind, and later offered to and rejected by Rhianna, Earfquake finds the rapper singing in heartbreak mode, pleading a lover not to leave over summer sounds and harmonies. His trademark sound is boosted by vocals from R&B legend Charlie Wilson, Devonté Hyne and (as it turns out, untranscribable) ad-libs from Playboi Carti.
Vampire Weekend, Harmony Hall
A track that’s the equivalent of opening the curtains and letting the spring sun shine in, Harmony Hall sees the band subtly refining their sound, with Ezra Koenig’s most poignant and accessible lyrics to date. If you like the acoustic guitar riff, there’s two hours-worth of it here.
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