Welcome to 2019: 40 Songs. Our 40 favourite tracks from 2019. Enjoy listening and reading the accompanying descriptions. If you’re in a real rush, skip to the bottom for the Spotify playlist. We promise we won’t cry.
Ada Lea – yanking the pearls off around my neck
“yanking the pearls off around my neck” is a mournful tale of miscommunication and doubt. After a breakup, Lea expertly paints the picture of the aftermath: full of woe and confusion of perception. “You always followed the sun, and I the moon or have I misremembered?” she wonders. With a quiet but guiding instrumental in the background, Lea uses her narrative to lead the listener, flipping slowly through a diary of time. “Sun and moon are disparate things,” she sings, remembering, and musing, inviting you along for the ride.
Ancient Pools – Forget
You can hardly believe that Portland-based duo Ancient Pools are only releasing their debut album this year. ‘Forget’ is the sound of an act that has finally hit the jackpot after honing their craft for years. ‘Forget’ is a gorgeous reverie that sees blissed-out synths, subtle drums and hushed vocals combine to wonderful effect. Dream a little dream with this one.
Aldous Harding – Pilot
In a show were the compare presented her as Aldous Huxley, Harding closed her set with a new song, ‘Pilot.’ If you’ve seen Harding live before you’ll know that the woman with many voices has just as many faces, yet for ‘Pilot’ she sat stationary in the beautiful surroundings of Green Man’s Brecon Beacons simply singing from her stool. A few minutes later the horrified compare returned to the stage, apologising for her mistake yet the song still lingered amongst all the rain-sodden cringes.
Indeed it lingered so long that when I read the tracklist for her new album ‘Designer’, released almost two years after that show, I was delighted to see ‘Pilot’ amongst it. Opening with a Beach Boys-like piano sequence, Harding lays down her deepest vocal on the record – if somebody told you there were ten singers on the album rather than one you’d struggle to argue them down. Nothing else gets added to the piano other than Harding’s rash thoughts and actions, ‘I don’t know how to behave, reacting, fist dangling’. The simple piano playing remains the same throughout while Harding’s thoughts get more irrational ‘I get so anxious I need a tattoo, something binding.’ The line she follows that up with ‘when the time comes to design it / opens up like height under a pilot’ is frankly anthemic, particularly when Harding goes on to repeat ‘opens up like height under a pilot’ over and over again. In true Harding style it’s a thoughtful yet absurd ending to one of the year’s best records. Now I can return to that field whenever I fancy.
Black Sea Dahu – How You Swallowed your Anger
Other than a pique in Janine Cathrein’s voice, very little changes after the start of Black Sea Dahu’s latest single. That is by no means a criticism though, more a nod to their ability to do lots with very little. ‘How you swallowed your anger’ is a hit of pure humanity, zoning in on our inability to give ourselves up to the feelings blooming in our heart. And like those feelings, this song just blooms and blooms, the chorus – ‘But I swore by my mother / that I wouldn’t believe in love again’ – becoming bigger and bigger with each repetition, until it swallows you from head to toe. Folk balladry at its absolute best.
Big Thief – Betsy
The soundscapes and lyrics on Besty are so vivid, you feel you’re in the song, sat behind the wheel of a black cab, nodding your head passively to Adrianne Lenker’s every whim, ‘drive into New York with me.’ The humans rushing alongside, the traffic lights and the bus stops all appear in a fog, the next one comes along before you’ve even had time to register the last. Lenker’s voice is hidden under a thick layer of gloom, sounding more like Nico than ever before, and the soundscapes are brooding, bloodcurdling even. If there’s one thing ‘Besty’ depicts most, it’s the weather the taxi is providing cover from. Within the song’s structure, you hear a howling wind, the sound of sleet falling slowly on to the road, its presence vanishing almost as soon as it lands. ‘Betsy’ is fleeting, a journey with no ending, no final destination, kind of like life really. And by god it’s beautiful.
Boy Scouts – Hate ya 2
“I don’t know why I love you and I hate you too,” Boy Scouts laments in “Hate Ya 2.” The duality of relationships is a confusing thing, and this song does an excellent job of putting beautiful harmonies and guitar behind a terrible situation. These are the same questions that so many people ask themselves over and over again during the inbetweens and corners of relationships: Why am I doing this? Why are you doing this? And why does this keep happening? “The light has become dark maybe it was never lit,” she sings.
Chastity Belt – Ann’s Jam
“Ann’s Jam” is Chastity Belt at their finest. They are doing exactly what they do best: hooks, and a laidback beat with Julia Shapiro’s straightforward vocals, but there is a sadness behind the casual melody. The song is a long look in the rearview mirror, back at something not far enough away to not feel anymore. “People talking, but they don’t have much to say / Just taking up space, then drifting away / We weren’t like that / Things weren’t always such a blur,” Shapiro sings. It’s so easily visualized, the youthful drive that meant the world, back at a time when nothing really mattered. “It was clear then the sea before a storm / Now there’s a thick fog around everything I learn / And I just kill time by dreading everything / But in that moment life felt significant,” she sings. A reminder that things have changed.
Camille Christel – Goldsmith Street
It’s pitch black, needles of rain fall in the glow of street lamps, whilst underfoot cars race by in both directions and pedestrians search for a place to shelter. That’s the scene I visualise when listening to Camille Christel’s ‘Goldsmith Street’ – the 19-year-old’s field recordings of pissing rain, bird calling plus her stark instrumentation result in a song that’s as pleasing visually as it is audibly.
The crux of the track is an infectious melodic hook that goes, “I miss train rides and the back of your spine / I haven’t seen it in a while / I haven’t seen you in a while.” Christel isn’t content to sing this hook over again, though that would make a pleasant enough listen, rather she pulls the threads out and nits into existence something new – a soundscape that features slow heartbeat-like percussion, stirring violin and a sample of Christel’s voice spiralling above. Christel is brave enough to transcend traditional song structures, to deconstruct and rebuild anew. ‘Goldsmith Street’ could announce the arrival of a true visionary.
Common Holly – Measured
Common Holly’s ‘Measured’ is a mystical, hymnal thesis on the forever enduring cycle of love and loss. Anchored for the most part by a flute and Laurie Anderson-like vocal instrumentation, ‘Measured’ in its ups and downs, its starts and stops, most closely represents The Mamas & Papas take on ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me’. Rather than using those legendary words to symbolise the restarting of the cycle, the return to the verse, Common Holly aka Montreal’s Brigitte Nagar sings ‘Oh, I think we’ve been measured out for pain since birth.’
Each verse or cycle begins with the blossoming of love and ends with its deterioration. By the end, Naggar is tired, “Why should I go in now / if it didn’t work then?” she ponders. In the end, our humanity gives us no choice but to re-enter battle even when we know pain, or more morbidly death, awaits us at the end. A tragedy Shakespeare would’ve been proud of.
Crake – Glycerin
Leeds group Crake write songs about ‘flora, fauna and the tough stuff’. ‘Glycerin’, the first single from their Dear Natalie EP, is packed with plucky percussion, the verses sounding as if Crake are climbing a rugged mountain, grabbing onto craggy rock after craggy rock. They reach the ascent on the chorus, when Rowan Sandle’s hoarse, faltering vocal is backed by Rob Slater’s haunting, monotone as together they sing “If you see I’m struggling then cast me out of line.”
Daughter of Swords – Fields of Gold
While Alexandra Sauser-Monnig’s debut album as Daughter of Swords may lean towards the lo-fi, ‘Fields of Gold’ is its biggest outlier, its gold spun textures acting like the sparks from a Catherine wheel on a winter night. It’s beginning may be humble but its arm soon stretch out wide as a bongos arrive and Sauser-Monnig warbles a seemingly never-ending ‘ahhh’ over the lush instrumentation. A glorious entry point to one of this year’s unexpected success stories.
Emily Yacina – Gleaming
Emily Yacina’s backing vocals were a stand-out feature of Yohuna’s magnificent record, ‘Mirroring’. Yacina is a fast friend of Johanne Swanson (Yohuna) and the two seemingly share a friend in Eric Littmann – he produced ‘Mirroring’ and Yacina’s record, ‘Remember The Silver’.
Lead single ‘Gleaming’ is more a feeling than a song. Just 93 seconds in length, its plush texture floods your brain with dopamine. The vocal line is so infectious, you feel like you’ve heard it a million times before. “Meet me here / I’ll show you / The same light / I’m feeling” she sings, Stranger Things-like synths and poppy snares propping her up into a different stratosphere. Originally an instrumental track, the latter half of ‘Gleaming’ is a blissful wig-out; the synths are blindingly bright, jousting against one another as Yacina’s voice contorts and floats above. Transportive isn’t the word.
Erin Durant – Rising Sun
‘Rising Sun’ is the raison d’etre of Erin Durant’s sophomore album ‘Islands’, the grand statement that leads you by the hand into her sprawling, sun-dappled archipelago. Over a gently strolling guitar and muted toms, Durant sings ‘I’m going far, I’m going wide’, signalling her intention to embed you within her travelling time machine. A lesson in sophistication, ‘Rising Sun’ fuses strung-out trumpets with Durant’s balm-like voice. ‘Rising Sun’ is like the lavender you spread on your pillow to induce sleep. Lie with it, doze off and dream of magical lands.
Field Guides – Guessing at Animals
On ‘Guessing at Animals’ we find Field Guides’ king pin, Benedict Kupstas experiencing infatuation for the first time following the dissolution of a long-term relationship. “The night I met her / I was feeling kind of rough”, he sings, her presence lifting him from his post-relationship slump. Framed by a splendorous guitar and a luxuriant trumpet, the filmic drama of Kupstas and his new love interest, played by vocalist Jamie Reeder, unravels. Hollywood scriptwriters would look enviously at the game of tic-tac-toe they play on the station platform, before Kupstas has to get off the train, singing “This is the first song not about you” triumphantly on his walk home. The track concludes with a glorious back-and-forth between Kupstas and Reeder, “Hey Benny boy are you ready? / I’m not sure, not just yet / Can this go on a little more?” That last question, “Can this go on a little more?”, parroted by the song’s listeners, so reluctant are we for the golden shimmer of Kupstas’ new love to fade.
Friendship – Clairvoyant
In ‘Clairvoyant’, Friendship have summoned an aura which settles healingly over you. It’s an outer-body experience, its glorious to-and-fro of mournful, whalesong-like synths, restrained guitars and tender drums transporting you to calmer, sun-dappled waters. A thank you note to a friend who offered support during a tough period, ‘Clairvoyant’ reduces to just a guitar before the chorus, the misery felt by singer/songwriter Dan Wriggins reflected in the withdrawal of instruments. The chorus is instantly memorable, Wriggins singing, “You asked if I’d been crying lately / I said “how can you tell?” / You said “I’m clairvoyant, baby” – the last line is particularly anthemic. The format of the song doesn’t err in the remainder, the band conscious that any other additions would distil the effect. ‘Clairvoyant’ gets its claws into you and pries you open. You’re left vulnerable but ultimately, stronger for it.
FKA Twigs – Cellophane
On minimalist ballad ‘Cellophane’, FKA Twigs is at her most vulnerable, questioning in a pointed voice ‘Why don’t I do it for you?’ The glitchy arca-inspired electronics of ‘LP1’ briefly appear in the chorus, but for the most part they’re absent. Though ‘Cellophane’ shows a softer side to Twigs, there’s no doubting that she’s still as strong as ever.
GHUM – Saturn
Internationally assembled post punk/grunge band GHUM open their 2019 EP ‘The Coldest Fire’ with the claustrophobic ‘Saturn.’ Spanish singer Laura Guerrerro Lora laments routine, singing ‘From Monday to Sunday’ apathetically, the punching, relentless drums echoing the production line-like pattern of her days. It’s wonderfully fraught, its tension constraining you within its suffocating structures. Your whole being wants to break free, yet you can’t convince yourself to put the key in the door.
Gold Baby – 500/1
Much in the vein of Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Seventeen,’ Gold Baby’s Sian Alex imagines her 2003 self encountering her modern-day self on soaring new single ‘500/1.’
The woman she encounters is glib and plain spoken, ‘All I’ve learned is duller ways to waste my time,’ she sings, decrying the often pointless obligations adulthood brings. As the conversation develops, modern day Sian becomes defensive and volatile, her voice going up an octave, singing ‘You knew that I’d be fabulous, didn’t you? Admit it.’ It’s the song’s best moment, her voice cracking as she effortlessly blends self-empowerment with denial.
The conclusion is haunting, ‘Bad dream, bad dream, this is just a bad dream’ sung in a schoolgirl-like chant, the kind horror film directors have employed relentlessly to haunt family homes. Which Sian that thought belongs to is left unclear. The odds the thought originated from 2013 Sian should stand at much higher than 500/1, as if she were to hear Gold Baby’s latest single we’re certain she’d look in awe at the woman she developed into, just as we are.
Great Grandpa – Mono no Aware
Built around a frankly anthemic chorus, Great Grandpa’s ‘Mono no Aware’ – the first taste from sophomore record ‘Four of Arrows’ – is a contemplation on the fleeting nature of memory. Led by warm, wistful guitars, ‘Mono no Aware’ also has Bon Iver-like electronics in the shadows – their spirit-like presence personifying the fragmented, childhood memories that haunt us in the present day. Alex Menne’s vocal is reminiscent of Frankie Cosmos and a highlight of the track, particularly when they deliver a rousing vocal with just a singular straining synth in tow. “That reminds me of my failing grasp / of the present memory” they lament. These childhood memories play a huge role in our lives, yet our very human inability to recapture them prevents us from working through them. With ‘Mono no Aware’, Great Grandpa capture that universal frustration in song, a permanent art-form to turn to when frustrated with the impermanence of life.
Grizzly Coast – High Functioning
When our friends and family think we’re at our happiest and most achieving, we’re often screaming internally. As humans we’ve evolved to hide our deepest insecurities in the often irrational fear that they’d derail the high-esteem that friends and family hold us in. Toronto’s Alannah Kavanagh aka Grizzly Coast explores this strange paradox on ‘High Functioning’.
The subject matter is clear from the off, Kavanagh sarcastically singing “I’m killing it or so they say” over a jaunty-bass line. On the truly anthemic chorus, Kavanagh sings the track’s most relatable line, “I’m high functioning / But the night reveals to me my weakest link”.
The fatal combination of hiding her internal stresses and trying to look like she has everything under control, soon overwhelms Kavanagh, “with shaking knees / I drop down in the street”. The ending is forthright, the chorus repeating over and over again to create a cyclone-like power that sends the listener into a relentless whirlwind. Amidst the noise Kavanagh locates her epiphany, “You hold the key / That I’m worth something”. The realisation that the esteem her friends and family hold her in is often truer than the negative thoughts of her inner voice.
Innocence Mission – On Your Side
The Innocence Mission’s ‘Green Bus’ was arguably 2018’s best song; the resulting album ‘Sun On The Square’ was pretty flawless too. The Pennsylvania trio have just announced a prompt follow-up, ‘See You Tomorrow’ which comes out January 17. And if lead single ‘On Your Side’ is anything to go by, it’s set to be as affecting and heart-breaking as ever.
Written about how those who have passed still live on beside us, chief songwriter Karen Peris’ describes this phenomenon with typically economic words. “I’m always on your side / I’m always on your side” she sings, impersonating a loved one speaking to her from the beyond. At first, her brittle voice is accompanied just by the plucks of her guitar until resplendent strings and wood percussion add power to the song’s main declaration. Other than a swelling conclusion, ‘On Your Side’ just flips between those two states, always doing enough but never too much. “In my dream, I would be in Paris with my mom,” Peris sings. “In cafes she would sip coffee, she would be smiling on/ She’d say, ‘I have never let you out of my sight. I have not gone.’” Music doesn’t get much better than this.
Jo Schornikow – Incomplete
What makes Jo Schornikow’s ‘Incomplete’ so enticing is its sheer unpredictability, it flits from elation to despair like a broken scale. You’ll be happily lost in a rising tide of choir-like vocals and galaxy imitating synths when suddenly Schornikow pulls the rug from under you, replacing the luxuriant, sun-dappled instrumentation with just a pulsating kick drum. Like an astronaut in outer space, ‘Incomplete’ bobs you up and down, Schornikow’s graceful vocal the only constant as you scale the highs and navigate the lows. It’s an intoxicating rollercoaster, and one you’ll want to ride over and over again.
Joanna Sternberg – This Is Not Who I Want To Be
From the moment you hear the opening notes of ‘This Is Not Who I Want To Be’ you just know you’re in ‘classic’ territory. This becomes even more concrete when Sternberg’s voice arrives, an intoxicating mix of Randy Newman and Fiona Apple.
Lyrically they have no equal, ‘This Is Not Who I Want To Be’ is a searingly honest reflection on Sternberg’s battle with addiction: “I wish I was scared of poison, pills and pain, I wish I was scared of damage to my brain” Joanna bemoans.
‘This Is Not Who I Want To Be’ is a life-saver. I’m lucky that addiction plays no role in my life right now, yet this song has had a profound effect on me. Just imagining the effect it’s having on people with addictions right now, gives me goosebumps. Joanna Sternberg, we need you.
Julia Shapiro – A Couple Highs
Under a layer of murk, we find Chastity Belt lead singer Julia Shapiro trying to project her voice above the dank atmosphere. It’s a place Shapiro commonly finds herself in on ‘Perfect Version,’ her solo debut for Hardly Art. Made following a tough break up and a cancelled Chastity Belt tour, Shapiro operates with a clear sonic palette making for one of 2019’s most idiosyncratic, carefully crafted records. ‘A Couple Highs’ is that palette in microcosm. Battling against past insecurities, Shapiro sings ‘I was so insecure’ before the song’s beautiful, spellbinding chorus emerges for the first time as soaring guitars beautifully wind around her faltering vocal.