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The 50 Best Songs of 2019

If there’s one unifying theme of the best songs of 2019, it’s a genre-less sense of exploration.

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FKA twigs
Photo: Matthew Stone

Where a song comes from, and how it becomes a hit, is more muddled than ever. In 2019, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-trap novelty built out of a Nine Inch Nails sample by an erstwhile Nicki Minaj stan, became a TikTok meme and then the biggest and most surprising smash of the year.

Or was it so surprising after all? As the world careens in wilder and wilder directions and the music industry’s rules have long since been abandoned, a hip-hop/Nashville crossover No. 1 by a young gay black man in Atlanta boasting about the “Wrangler on my booty” seems somehow natural. And, in its own absurd way, liberating.

Defining what we used to call singles, much less ranking them, doesn’t make much sense now. For the first time ever, Slant has ranked the best songs of the year, from radio darlings and streaming juggernauts to gorgeous deep cuts. So, Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish (the other commercial breakout no one could shut up about) sit comfortably alongside a quieter Taylor Swift, Bat for Lashes’s mind-melting atmospherics, the drifting grief of Nick Cave’s latest work, and the weirdest shit Madonna has ever put out. FKA twigs’s electronic-pop ballads and Lana Del Rey’s revisionist take on ‘70s singer-songwriter material, complete with nods to Sublime and Kanye West, are practically programming categories of their own.

If there’s one unifying theme in this set of tracks, it’s a genre-less sense of exploration. These self-possessed artists have decided to push against old formulas in search of something more transparently reflective of who they are and what’s happening inside their brains during a remarkably chaotic time. The masses, or at least fiendish cult audiences, are listening. Paul Schrodt


50. Bat for Lashes, “Peach Sky”

Natasha Khan’s latest album, Lost Girls, conjures an all-woman biker gang riding around some hazy, menacing version of Los Angeles. Although “Peach Sky” isn’t nearly as blood-thirsty as all that, its warm ‘80s-style synths evoke the magic of driving through darkness with the volume cranked to 10. Bathed in the glow of passing headlights, Khan’s vocals heave with longing: “Oh, you and I know/I know it ain’t right/So, so I/want a long goodnight.” Anna Richmond


49. DJ Shadow featuring De La Soul, “Rocket Fuel”

The first time I heard “Rocket Fuel,” it sounded so warm and familiar that I assumed it had to be sampling something ubiquitous but anonymous. It turns out that the only well-worn sample was taken from Neil Armstrong’s moon landing speech. DJ Shadow and De La Soul have crafted an instant classic, the type of jam that should be central to every summertime block party from now until the apocalypse. “Rocket Fuel” seems destined for pump-up soundtracks and highlight reels, the kind of song that gets you ready for 12 rounds in the ring. Seth Wilson


48. The National, “I Am Easy to Find”

Seemingly standard-issue songs on the National’s I Am Easy to Find are made more rewarding by the guest singers’ eye-opening interpretations. Best of all, they occasionally empower the band to do something completely new, most notably on the stunningly beautiful title track, with its male-female harmonizing and atypically delicate vocal cadences. It’s one of the most uncharacteristic, and finest, songs the National has recorded to date. Jeremy Winograd


47. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Julien”

Carly Rae Jepsen has a knack for casting the pangs of love in a glamorous light, a far cry from mopey, post-breakup ice cream binging. With “Julien,” she goes a step further, making her reminiscences of a fling she can’t shake off seem enjoyable and exhilarating over a fusion of throwback disco and slick synth-pop. “More than just lovers, I/I’m forever haunted by our time,” she breathily coos over heavy-hitting synths that bleed into sun-soaked guitar. Sophia Ordaz


46. Jenny Hval, “Ashes to Ashes”

It’s not every day that a song about a dream about a song about a burial should compel its listener to dance. On “Ashes to Ashes,” abundant synth strings and a hypnotic bassline cohere with singer-songwriter Jenny Hval’s honey-sweet voice into a kind of beautiful Trojan horse for a meditation on innocence and experience, sex and death. Richmond


45. Sofi Tukker and ZHU, “Mi Rumba”

From the epic “Swing” to the quirky “Purple Hat,” there was no shortage of Sofi Tukker bops to choose from this year. But it’s the New York-based jungle-pop duo’s collaboration with EDM artist ZHU, “Mi Rumba,” that ekes out a spot on our list, thanks to the track’s mix of dark funk and unapologetic sexuality. Trading the group’s usual Brazilian influences for a more Cuban flavor, punctuated by distorted horns and a fleet-footed bassline, the track captures the paradoxical nature of sexual freedom in just one sadomasochistic line: “You can put me in a bind ‘cause I’m already free.” Sal Cinquemani


44. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Ghosteen”

By typical pop music standards, “Ghosteen” is a preposterously structured song. It’s 12 minutes long, and 11 of those minutes are Nick Cave murmuring abstract musings on the nature of love over a quiet synthy drone. But compositionally, “Ghosteen” is much more classical than pop, with a three-part structure that tells a story of its own. The first movement is exotic and tense, as it builds to the second—a spectacular, swirling burst of radiant beauty that seems to come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. And it seems to take everything out of Cave: The minimalist final movement sounds like the singer retreating into a long, much-needed sleep. Winograd


43. Mark Ronson featuring Miley Cyrus, “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart”

Beneath sweeping strings, a cyclical acoustic guitar line recalls the looping pattern of “Jolene,” but where the object of Dolly Parton’s pain was singular, Miley Cyrus’s is more universal: “This world can hurt you/It cuts you deep and leaves a scar.” This is producer Mark Ronson at his most lushly cinematic, and Cyrus in the best voice she’s been in for years.
Richmond


42. Broods, “Everytime You Go”

An unassuming deep cut from New Zealand duo Broods’s third album, Don’t Feed the Pop Monster, “Everytime You Go” is a textured synth-pop ballad in the form of a dance song. The track’s 4/4 pulse, electric synth stabs, clattering percussion, and delicate piano flourishes gradually build in service of singer Georgia Josiena Nott’s simmering anxiety. The frenzy in her voice slowly increases as she reaches the bridge, laying out in stark terms the most universal of fears: “Is it good enough to know it’s enough?/’Cause I need to know that you need my love.” Cinquemani


41. Kanye West, “Use This Gospel”

While it’s fair and useful to question Kanye West’s motives in suddenly declaring himself a servant to God, there’s no denying the sincerity of “Use This Gospel,” a maximalist, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-worthy swirl that incorporates Clipse and a Kenny G sax solo that, if there is a God, will certainly be admitted into heaven. Schrodt

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