Music Hits – 2019 was a year of upheaval in the world of pop music, as new voices emerged along unexpected paths. Lizzo’s career jolted forward by Netflix trailer; Lil Nas X drives TikTok and Twitter to the top of the charts. Rising stars from Brooklyn (Pop Smoke), Spain (Rosalia) and Nigeria (Burna Boy), they masterfully use social media and massive streaming numbers to capture audiences worldwide.
And as new voices gain attention, some of pop’s biggest names, from Charli XCX to Dua Lipa, also continue to deliver the earworms that matter. Here are the best songs of 2019.
The fact that The Highwomen exist is amazing. The new supergroup brings together four of country music’s most prolific women: Maren Morris, a country pop star with powerful vocals and mainstream hits like “The Middle”; Brandi Carlile, the Grammy Award-winning folk artist whose work is label-free excellence; Amanda Shires, prominent violinist and country principal; and Natalie Hemby, the prolific songwriter who became the secret weapon for artists like Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and Lady Gaga on A Star Is Born. The four of them came together to make an album showing their commitment to claim a space for women’s voices in a historically patriarchal field. And the fact that their music – as exemplified by the beautiful ballad “Meja Ramai” – weaves in political statements just adds another layer of richness. “I want a house with a full table,” they demand, “and a place by the fire for all / Let’s face the world while we’re young and able, And bring us back together when the day is done.” This lineup fulfills the mission of these four different artists: to make great music while at the same time complicating the definitions of femininity, motherhood, and femininity. They make this statement through unashamedly beautiful melodies, weaving in and out of duets and harmonies with a smooth, rich sweetness.
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Since appearing at Colors Studios in 2017, British singer Mahalia has enjoyed a steady rise, scoring hits like “I Wish I Missed My Ex” and the Ella Mai-assisted “What You Did.” On “Simmer,” he repurposes the sizzling bassline from Beenie Man’s 1997 dancehall classic “Who Am I” and uses it to sketch a love story where a relationship boils over. Nigerian singer Burna Boy, one of this year’s breakout stars, turned the song’s B-side into a global summer hit.
Caroline Polachek has long worked on the fringes of mainstream pop: fronting the indie-pop group Chairlift for ten years and bringing together songwriters for Beyoncé, Solange, Charli XCX and Travis Scott. But he took center stage on this year’s Pang, his debut album with Sony. The best song from the group is “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” a cheeky title track propelled by handclaps and muffled guitars. But while the song sounds ready for a night out, it flows with love: “I cried on the dance floor, it was so embarrassing,” admits Polachek. The music video, in which he jumps and spins in cowboy boots in a barren hellscape, perfectly reflects the song’s paradoxically joyful power.
Carly Rae Jepsen has built a cult family on the strength of her clean, on-your-arms brand of pop. (His third widely praised album was called Naked
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.) “Too Much” synthesizes everything that makes the Canadian artist, best known for his 2012 earworm “Call Me Maybe,” beloved. It has relatable nasal lyrics; commitment to catchy and sweet melodies; all sung with Jepsen’s intimate and breathy vocals. Above all, “Too Much” feels incredibly honest. “When I feel it, I feel it too much / I’ll do anything to hurry,” he sings, then turns, “Is this too much?” His ability to swing wildly from joy to uncertainty – throughout a dance track that’s as catchy as anything he’s produced – is a triumph.
Bandana, the album made famous by rapper Freddie Gibbs and producer Madlib, was forged under difficult circumstances: Gibbs says he wrote most of the record in an Austrian prison while awaiting his final release for sexual assault. Given the initial differences between the pair, it’s amazing how perfectly Gibbs’ gravelly rhymes blend with Madlib’s sun-bleached soul production. “Crime Pays” in particular perfectly articulates the line between their aesthetic sensibilities: Madlib unearths a pristine sample from jazz fusion artist Walt Barr that evokes nostalgia and limitless possibilities, while Gibbs confronts the dark reality of chasing the American dream: “Diamonds on my chain, yeah, slang, but I’m still a slave / twisted in the system, just a number on a page.”
With her debut album in 2017, British Dua Lipa cemented her position as a honey-voiced mainstream pop star. In the debut single “Do’t Start Now” from his second student project, he proves that he has something to add to the conversation. And that something is disco’s propulsive and infectious sensibility. Crafted with juicy synths, bubbling percussion and bouncy vocal bends, this song celebrates independence and promises joy. Lipa made her name on the sassy breakup empowerment hit “New Rules”; “Don’t Start Now” follows this breezy and forward-thinking tradition. “Even if it takes me a while to get over you,” he sings, “I’ll be better on the other side.” It’s the sound of a new pop era.
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Lizzo’s “Juice” is a funk-soul self-love dance song built to inspire confidence. It was not a coincidence; his long career as a singer, songwriter and flutist has taken off this year as he commits to the goal of making listeners feel reassured in his delicious, fun-loving lyrics and danceable beats. She starts things off by reversing the fairy tale pledge, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, don’t say that because I know I’m cute,” and ends the song with a giggle. With a retro-sounding melody that resonates across generations of taste, the song has become a dancefloor staple. “Juice” sounds like it was perfected in a test kitchen, equal parts joy, cheeky lyrics and less charm.
While mainstream rap is still dominated by trap—a subgenre that originated in Atlanta—artists have also looked north and picked up elements of the faster, raucous Chicago-style workout. “Welcome to the Party,” an inevitability in Brooklyn this summer and fall, races forward manically as the 20-year-old rapper’s syllables pour out in eerie, clipped spray. Pop Smoke growls both its menace and boasts an unruly and unpredictable band – but even more formidable is producer 808Melo’s bass line, which seems to emerge from the deepest recesses of the American soul.
“Con Altura” is a record-breaking collaboration between two Spanish-speaking artists with different backgrounds but strong influences: Spain’s Rosalía made a name for herself with flamenco-influenced alt-pop in works like her Grammy-nominated Poetical. inspired second album
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, while J Balvin reigns as one of the kings of Latin American reggaeton and one of the most popular artists on the planet thanks to international chart toppers like “Mi Gente” and “I Like It.” Together in “Con Altura” they find an interesting place where they combine various musical traditions from dembow to hip hop and reggaeton while developing their individual strengths. More than the special percussion, Rosalía’s voice resonates with the flat singing precision. Balvin offers a stable balancing point. The combination is powerful and haunting, hinting at the diversity of Latin music and the creative future that is surely on its way.
“Old Town Road” contains many different truths. It is both an underdog and a monster; eye-rollingly trivial and slyly progressive; hit and unique meme ready for radio. This summer, it’s a distraction and something you can’t run away from.
And it is this transformative ability that makes “Old Town Road” the ideal cultural artifact for 2019 in its endlessly repetitive and argumentative nature. Whether it’s online criticizing it, dancing to it, or remixing it, everyone interacts with it in some way, constantly pouring fuel as it makes record after record.
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And when Lil Nas X added to the fire by releasing a remix stream, the song became less of a stand-alone record and more of a violation. Each new version breaks a new boundary or norm – whether it’s Billy Ray Cyrus singing about a Maserati or BTS member RM delivering a bilingual pun. Once derided as an outsider—both to Nashville and the music industry at large—Lil Nas became a gatekeeper, then opened the door wide for others.