This is what happens when you get an indecisive person to create a top ten.
Having whittled down a list of 50 into something resembling a top twenty, I decided there were just too many amazing songs this year to mention. So here’s the twenty 2019 songs that I just had to share with you:
20. ‘Hero’ – Michael Kiwanuka
Up there with his very best songs, ‘Hero’ stands out from the rest of the tracks on KIWANUKA because of it’s Hendrix-esque guitar tones and the renewed confidence of Michael’s delivery. It was the highlight of one of the most lauded albums of the year and shows the UK’s most soulful songwriter at the very top of his game.
19. All Mirrors – Angel Olsen
‘Losing beauty/at least at times it knew me’ is not only one of my favourite lyrical couplets of 2019, but it is also the moment on Olsen’s 2019 album that most marks the departure she has taken from her previous work. Accompanied by swirling strings it shows us when she went from a folk-pop songstress to a showstopping superstar. All Mirrors was also the name of her 2019 album, and it is a collection of songs that continues to grow in power as we move into the New Year.
18. Loyle Carner – Looking Back
Carner has often been accused, by idiots, of writing too much about his love for his family and the importance of his relationships. On ‘Looking Back’, the standout from second album Not Waving, But Drowning, he digs into the more difficult side of his upbringing as a mixed-race young man and the affects of losing his father. It is both his most personal and his most universal song so far.
17. Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting – The Twilight Sad
It Won/t Be Like This All The Time was one of those albums so good that no song immediately stood out above the others. Nearly a year after its release, I still admire it more as a complete piece of work than when broken down into the sum of its parts. The album is just perfect. But if you forced me to pick one song, it would be the raucous and powerful ‘Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting.’ There were few better moments in music this year than when James Graham delivered the line ‘I caught you kissing on the back stairs’ in his trademark Scottish drawl.
16. Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You – Julia Jacklin
Julia followed up her amazing debut with Crushing, a standout album in a genre that was absolutely flying in 2019. She writes some superb energetic country-folk songs, such as ‘Head Alone’ and ‘Pressure to Party’, but I have always preferred it when Julia really slows things down and makes you think. With ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’ she does both of these things, drawing out a slow and beautiful ballad about the difficulties of keeping a relationship alive when you can accurately predict the contents of every present they buy you. Stunning.
15. Dawn Chorus – Thom Yorke
Anima was the album that spat in the faces of the critics who say everything Thom Yorke does is miserable. It was a danceable, energetic epic that pulled you through a dark but exciting ride. It was full of catchy hooks and clever song structures. It was an album you could really move to. So I, of course, chose its most mournful piece of music as its only representative on this list. But when the best musician on the planet today puts together six minutes of music about regret, second chances, and the meaning of life, then he leaves me with very little choice. Listen and let yourself cry like a baby.
14. Boss – Little Simz
Just two songs into Grey Area, ‘Boss’ was the Little Simz song that made me sit up and listen. That filthy little bassline. The anger in her voice on every verse. The amazing delivery of ‘I’m a boss in a fucking dress’, one of the very best lines on this album. What a song. Simz will show up on this list again later, though, so I’ll leave it at that for now.
13. In Time – Self Esteem
‘Don’t feel sorry for me/I’m doing fine/Patiently seething/Hoping that you’ll leave.’
It was these witty, acerbic lyrics that sucked me in as I stood watching Self Esteem on Green Man’s Mountain Stage back in August and I have barely stopped listening since. A masterclass in angry, empowering pop, this song is the immediate drawer on an album full of them. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve mentioned Self Esteem on this website, and there’s one more too come in this article, too.
12. Hey Ma – Bon Iver
Ahhhhh. Bon Iver were back. All was right with the world. ‘Hey Ma’, from fourth album i,i, is the perfect example of everything that Justin Vernon does best. The slow builds, the soaring vocals, the mysterious lyrics that, if you spend long enough with them, manage to be so personal that a little bit of you breaks. There always seems to be an air of doubt about what Vernon will do next, whether he’ll match what he’s done before. And then he releases a piece of music as magical as ‘Hey Ma.’
11. Toaster – Slowthai
One of my favourite discoveries of the year, Slowthai was an incendiary political force in 2019. Decapitated Boris Johnson heads. Crowds chanting socialist slogans back at him. That a 25-year-old from Northampton had some of the most insightful things to say about Britain in 2019 tells you all you need to know about the power and potential of our youth in the current climate. But what struck me most about ‘Toaster’, and some of the other strongest cuts from There’s Nothing Great About Britain, was it’s author’s ability to show how that political nightmare influences the personal.
10. Shoulders – Big Thief
Top Ten time, and the first of two songs from Big Thief’s Two Hands. ‘Shoulders’ shows us everything that’s special about one of the best bands in the world right now. Sweeping crescendos, superb storytelling, and mesmerising lyrics delivered by one of the most unique and variable voices in the business. If you don’t know this band already, there aren’t many better places to start.
9. RABi – Bon Iver
The first artist to appear for a second time on my list, and the very best closing song to appear on an album in 2019. Critics have lauded Bon Iver’s ability to bring together the styles of the previous three albums on i,i, but he has actually managed to do that all on this one incredible song. A soft, simple song that does so much with so little and leaves you feeling like you’re floating on a cloud of joy at the end of an album that has pulled your emotions all over the place. Evidence, if needed, that the man is a genius.
8. The Pull of You – The National and Lisa Hannigan
Similarly to The Twilight Sad, The National released an album so full of stonking songs that it was hard for me to pick out a favourite. But ‘The Pull of You’ is the one that I most regularly come back to, was the one that stood out most when I saw them at Castlefield Bowl, and is the one with the standout moment on the album – that second verse, sung with such passion by Matt Berninger, is my favourite band at their very best. It also features Lisa Hannigan, another of my favourite musicians. If you haven’t heard her album At Swim, you should do so immediately.
7. Green & Blue – The Murder Capital
Those jagged guitars. That rolling drum beat. That clipped, aggressive vocal line. This is the absolute standout song from The Murder Capital’s stunning debut When I Have Fears, and heralds the arrival of one of the most exciting bands on the scene right now. Add to all that the fact that this was written in the aftermath of the suicide of a friend of the band, and the tense, confusing atmosphere of the song really starts to make sense. The darkest, dingiest song on this list – it might be one of the hardest to get into, but if you give it the time it is destined to grow on you.
6. Seventeen – Sharon Van Etten
‘Seventeen’ has the best break of any song on this list, as Sharon puts all the emotion her voice can muster into the screamed line of ‘I know what you’re gonna be’ on around the 3 minute mark. It’s an emotion that makes this song. Speaking to herself as a seventeen-year-old, you can see Sharon reminiscing for the freedom of that age while also wanting to reach back and warn herself of the travails that are to come. When you know Sharon’s backstory, this becomes an even more powerful piece of music.
5. The Best – Self Esteem
The song that properly kicks off Self Esteem’s amazing Compliments Please album, ‘The Best’ is a demonstration of absolutely everything that they do well. It’s fun, it’s feisty, it’s full of honesty. It is also the strongest example of the empowering message that underlies all of their music, the tale of bursting out to take control of your own space. The lyric ‘you paint a pretty picture/ I put my fist right through’ gets me in the gut every time. If you could distil Self Esteem into a single song this would be it.
4. Selfish – Little Simz
If, even after this amazing year for her, you still haven’t heard Little Simz then I suggest you stop reading this now and listen to this song. It shows her effortless flow, her slick beats, her witty lyricism, and her superb storytelling. It has everything that made Grey Area the standout hip-hop album of 2019 and it’s the song in which she reaches the potential she’s been showing for years.
3. Not – Big Thief
Probably the best band I’ve discovered in the last decade, and this is arguably the best song they’ve released so far. It’s biting, it’s aggressive, it’s angry – but somehow it’s also soothing and redemptive. It’s yet another example of Adrienne Lenker’s unrivalled song construction and her mystical lyricism.
2. The Barrel – Aldous Harding
There can be few artists as beguiling, bizarre, and baffling as Aldous Harding when she’s on top form. And she’s on top form here. What might originally sound like simply an up-tempo folk song, ‘The Barrel’ is so full of layers, so mysterious, and so downright captivating that it had to be this high on my top twenty songs of 2019. I have little clue what she’s going on about, and yet she manages to fill me with a whole host of emotions in a matter of just a few minutes. Add to that the year’s most intriguing and strange music video, and 2019 was almost the year of ‘The Barrel’…
1. Hold Your Own – Kate Tempest
…but one song beat ‘The Barrel’ into second place, largely because of the way it hit me in the gut on the very first time I heard it. A sea of calm from an artist who is so often focused on chaos, Kate sends out a call for appreciation of all the things that are good in your life even during these troubling times we find ourselves in. Kate asks us to recognise that we are sitting with ‘the lover that you fought for’ rather than ‘craving’ and continuing to search, she pleads with us to ‘taste the salt of friendship’ and stop trying to ‘make yourself feel like the new exciting person you think you’re supposed to be.’ While her music will always focus on the difficulties of our era, and the downtrodden in our society, ‘Hold Your Own’ was one of the many flashes of optimism on her latest album The Book of Traps and Lessons. While Kate continues to tell truth to power she also asks, in this beautiful piece of music, that we take stock of the good in our own lives and give ourselves a place to breathe while society crumbles around us.