How high, and how often, does Vampire Weekend make the list? (Photo by Ross Gilmore/WireImage)
Life has gotten busy for your friendly neighborhood The Postrider EIC, and I haven’t had as much time to write in the back half of 2019 as I had hoped. Luckily there’s always end of (or beginning of) the year time for me to reflect on and distill the twelve months that were, and I hope this, my top 30 songs of 2019, kicks off an uptick in production from your’s truly.
Looking back on my Top 30 Songs of 2018, I’m struck by the fact that my year in music was dominated by a select cadre of artists. Maybe that’s just the way I listen to music now, because a full 20% of 2019’s list comes from two artists, which is not a thing I did by design. But what two artists are they? Well, the only way you’ll find out is to read on. So jump right in and enjoy The Postrider’s Top 30 Songs of 2019
30. “Don’t Kiss Me, I’m in Training” – Dump Him
Mental health has been a hot topic the past few years — a Wall Street Journal op-ed went as far as to call Millenials “generation therapy” — and, while removing the stigma around receiving help is a good thing, the way the language of self-care and trauma has seeped into art and culture can feel clinical, almost preachy. Dump Him’s “Don’t Kiss Me, I’m in Training” is the rare song that manages to tackle such issues in a way that’s not only catchy, but also emulates the twitchy anxiety you feel when you really want to reach out but feel something holding you back from doing so. Facing a planet in certain doom, Mattie Hamer and Jac Walsh want desperately not to die alone, but how can you do so when the thing you want to be with most (another person) is also the cause of all your woe and pain? Or, as they put it more succinctly, “…I wish I could love you like I were well.”
29. “(I Blame) Society” – Titus Andronicus
A running theme in Titus Andronicus’s music is the inherent cruelty and indifference of the universe and the futility and resultant oppressiveness of the various moral codes humans have tried to construct in the absence of a natural order. They’ve unpacked these concepts through five act rock operas and Civil War metaphors, but sometimes it’s fun to keep things simple: “(I Blame) Society” is a straight-forward punk screed against the institutions that run our lives and set our norms. It maintains +@’s trade mark no surrender attitude, rallying riffs, and power chords, but the secret sauce is how little Patrick Stickles and company care about the futility of the song’s central message, despite their full cognition. Blaming something as ill-defined and intangible as “society” for the world’s ills may only be so helpful, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be cathartic.
28. “Hello Sunshine” – Bruce Springsteen
Artists often threaten to romanticize negative feelings by turning them into pleasant sounding songs and pieces of entertainment, and there are plenty of tropes regarding miserable but brilliant artists that feed into the notion that one must be sad to make anything of worth. I’d hardly call Bruce Springsteen a mope but, on “Hello Sunshine,” he seems to have gotten a little fed up with his own appetite for melancholy. Complaining that he’s “a little too fond of the blues,” “Hello Sunshine” finds Springsteen imploring the bit of happiness that’s entered his life — whether it’s a friend, a lover, or heck, an actual beam of sunlight — while listing out all the things he’s come to love about the lonesome life. It’s a perfect first foray into the kind of cowboy balladering found on Western Stars, and a tender ode to learning to be happy again, even if you’ve “always liked that empty road.”
27. “Heads Gonna Roll” – Jenny Lewis
I had my issues with some of the songwriting on On the Line, Jenny Lewis’s L.A. troubador record, but “Heads Gonna Roll” evades the album’s downsides and stands out as an instant classic. An old fashioned classic rock piano ballad worthy of The Band or Procol Harum (it’s even got an organ solo!), “Heads Gonna Roll” unfurls like a finely woven tapestry, packing a full album’s worth of characters and imagery into a five minute track. Lewis pulls the best songwriting ticks from all of your favorite scribes– oddly specific Craig Finni-isms (“Took a little trip up North/In a convertible red Porsche/With a narcoleptic poet from Duluth”/”We argued about everything”/From Elliott Smith to grenadine”), Jagger-esque snipes at fame whores (“I hope the sycophants in Marrakesh/Make you feel your very best”/”Anonymity always made you blue”), and even some classic Springsteenian romanticism (“He took me to a graveyard/I thought he’d kill me there”/But he kissed me on the corner”/”While the nuns of Harlem stared”). It’s a treasure trove for those of us wishing for a little more beatnik poetry in modern rock music– something anthemic, apocalyptic, and elegiac all at once.
26. “Murdered Out” – Kim Gordon
On ode to coating cars in black matte spray, “Murdered Out”, with its razor blade guitars and baseball bat of a bassline, sounds like a violent parking lot confrontation. Kim Gordon takes full advantage of her first solo album by laying down a track that’s groovier than anything Sonic Youth ever put out, but not without adding plenty of noisy anti-riffs and feedback on top of the locked in rhythm section. She also serves up a classic throaty vocal full of edgey imagery and possible threats, capturing the essence of what made her old band so appealing while keying into something new at the same time.
25. “Echo” – Fern Mayo
Wordless vocal choruses have always rankled me — they feel like a cheap way to add in a hook without having to write actual lyrics. That bias kicked in when I first heard Fern Mayo’s spiraling, nervy “Echo,” leading me to write off a good chunk of this song as nothing but needling vocalization with little actual point. Good God was I wrong: the tortured wails that make up “Echo”’s chorus perfectly capture the hopelessness of feeling silenced in a relationship, either by your partner or yourself, and the deceptively furious drumming and churning riffs combine with Mayo’s voice to create the sonic equivalent of Edvard Munch’s Scream. The past decade saw a lot of tracks washed in reverb, but few made used it to such powerful effect as Mayo does here. Her tortured mewls melt into the instrumental before fizzling out in defeat, the sound of a person collapsing in on their self, or clawing out self-actualization bit by bloody bit.
24. “VIBEZ” – DaBaby
From “March Madness” to “Black Beatles” to “Sicko Mode,” rap has gone tp some dark, psychedelic, and almost proggy places in the past half-decade, embracing pulsating curtains of synths while still hanging onto the brittle 808s that defined the genre in the 2010s. Enter DaBaby and “VIBEZ,” an artist so playful and a beat so dense and colorful it’s almost jarring. Spitting over what sounds like one of those red rubber four square balls being punched in triplet, DaBaby lets us know just how fun it is to be a famous rapper, spreading smutty rumors about himself and extolling the power of his crew’s vibes. Everything in the track sounds like a party bus on the way to an overflowing hotel room, but it’s the anarchic adlibs that make “VIBEZ.” Instead of filling in the space between the bars, the various “Ooh,” “mmhs,” “yeahs,” and “keewwws” punctuate the beat and DaBaby’s sleazy imagery, making you feel like you’re in a vibed out Suburban all your own.
23. “Don’t You Know” – Durand Jones and The Indications
I haven’t done polling on this, but, if I had to take a guess, I’d wager that the most universally appreciated music genre on Earth is Motown, whose sweet melodies and honeyed harmonies pair with sweeping and invigorating instrumentals to create perfect pop bliss. It’s probably impossible to capture the magic of the genre’s 1960s heyday, but, on “Don’t You Know,” Durand Jones and The Indications come pretty damn close. Lifted off the ground by downy strings and puffy horns, “Don’t You Know” sends Jones and satin-voiced drummer Aaron Frazier floating to the stratosphere through the sheer power of their love and devotion to the objects of their affection. Frazier’s falsetto takes the verse, Jones’s soulful instrument takes the pre-chorus, and then the two unite for a chorus that feels like diving into a cloud. The message of “Don’t You Know” is built around the two singers trying to convince you of their devotion, but the persuasion isn’t necessary. A few beatific seconds in, and it’s clear that nothing that sounds this good could be the product of anything but pure love.
22. “Georgia” – Brittany Howard
“Georgia”’s success lies in its apparent simplicity, and its acknowledgement that simple things like a childhood crush really aren’t that simple at all. In fact, they require big, dramatic explosions of sound to properly communicate. Telling a story that combines an innocent childhood crush and perspective altering awakening, “Georgia’s” tender, soulful beat borrows a lot from Howard’s Alabama Shakes’s futurist Southern soul rock before bursting into a full-on supernova of pounding drums and straight, simple, but cosmic guitar notes to simulate the overwhelming effect of young love and the impossibility of grasping such feelings at any age. It’s ostentatious, empowering, intimidating, and transcendent, just like any desire worth feeling.
21. “In Your Head” – Nilufer Yanya
Miss Universe, Nilufer Yanya’s full length debut, uses indie rock as a base to pull in influences as diffuse as R&B, pop, jazz, and trip hop, but it’s “In Your Head,” the album’s punkiest, most jagged track that stands out as a true showcase for the singer’s unique, husky tone. Through a catchy, scratchy guitar riff and a couple of well placed vocal leaps, Yanya begs and pleads for some confirmation that she’s not imagining a shared attraction and feeling of connection. It’s not just that she wants to know what’s in your head, it’s that she wants to get out of hers, as well, to skip the part where you actually have to talk about your feelings and jump to knowing each other intuitively. Thus far, the technology to facilitate such instantaneous facilitation of desire does not (and perhaps should not) exist, so we’ll have to settle for making ourselves understood through energizing pop-rock nuggets instead.
20. “Blackout Sam” – The Hold Steady
When Craig Finn sings “Somebody should check on Blackout Sam”on this highlight from The Hold Steady’s return-to-form Thrashing Thru the Passion, it’s very tempting to utter out a mental “no shit Sherlock,” since the character in question is named after what happens when you drink too much and can’t remember what you got up to. But The Hold Steady’s songs have always existed in that moment before you realize that one too many is actually one too many, in between the time when your friends’ debaucherous partying behaviors go from charming to concerning, until it’s too late. “Blackout Sam” is a requiem for a towny known for having one too many, yes, but it’s also an Irish wake: a celebration of a life that’s lionized because it’s impossible to perfect– a kind of towny romance that only really exists on trips back home for Thanksgiving or at St. Patrick’s Day parade. The smart guys like Finn get to leave, but the Blackout Sam’s have to stay and relive it every day, letting it define them and eventually kill them. So gather ‘round and raise a glass to these hometown heroes and local legends with the far away eyes and promise to give each other what they couldn’t get but so desperately needed. To feel, as Finn so poignantly states, “protected and high.”
19. “Family Ghost” – Jeff Tweedy
The visualizer that accompanied the release of “Family Ghost” zooms in on and distorts a person wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap, the image starting to melt into a watercolor painting as the eery slide guitar kicks in. It’s the perfect emulation of how it felt to realize that friends, neighbors, and family members harbor some latent, horrid beliefs and acted upon them in 2016, placing us in our precarious political situation. But Jeff Tweedy doesn’t take aim at these people. Instead, he recognizes them as the symptom of something ugly that’s lingered on in America since its founding– a collective familial specter that’s now been “spray paint[ed] gold” and given a new vessel. He decides to take its reemergence as an opportunity, declaring that he believes women and his children when they discuss the struggles they face, suggesting some kind of perseverance and forward view through his firmly strummed guitar. Tweedy’s resigned, almost hangdog vocals may feel detached or even bemused, but it’s the perfect summation of what it means to “feel so American,” like you’re fighting the same battle for two hundred years. Even if the clothes and slogans have changed, the struggle remains the same.
18. “bmbmbm” – black midi
With their proggy song structures and affinity for all sounds twisted and gnarled, few bands push back against the modern music landscape as ostentatiously as black midi. “bmbmbm,” which is built around a syncopated drumbeat and a guitar riff that fits nicely into the groove, may seem like the UK group’s slouch towards accessibility. But as the drummer’s awkward relationship to the 1 unfolds, and the riff gets repeated to the point where it becomes just another prodding, throbbing noise, it becomes clear that this isn’t any normal rock song — and that’s all BEFORE you hear the indecipherable, ranting female voice that goes on and on and on in the background. Despite lead singer Geordie Greep’s insistence that the song’s subject has a “magnificent purpose,” “bmbmbm” is a screed absolutely dripping with contempt for the kinds of people who think they’re entitled to throwing child-like tantrums and getting their way despite it. That attitude seems to have seeped into nearly every aspect of our current culture, and its proliferation may be unavoidable, but black midi seems to think launching rounds and rounds of ugly sound at it will do the trick, and who am I to argue?
17. “Tricks” – Stella Donnelly
Directed at the drunk cads who’d heckle her during cover gigs, Stella Donnelly’s “Tricks” is a twirling kiss-off blown through a raised middle finger that harnesses the sunny guitar pop that’s grown popular in her native Australia to biting effect. Donnelly acts as her own hypeman by playing a quick lick after dropping each little insult, and her ultimate request, “leave it alone,” conveys enough annoyance to feel forceful, but little enough to know that she’s not really that bothered by your constant calls for Cold Chisel and Crowded House. After all, you’re out there and she’s already on the stage — let’s not be mistaken about who’s looking up to whom.
16. “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You” – Julia Jacklin
The guitars in Julia Jacklin’s “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You” are dark but glistening, like a river caught in the moonlight. This milky curtain of black drawn by the rhythm guitars and the fuzzy licks played by the lead are the latest and greatest version of a modern artist putting their own spin on the dusky but distorted soundscapes that highlighted Neil Young’s career, and there’s part of me that almost wishes there was a two-minute solo in this song to payoff the tension built through the track’s five and a half minutes. That isn’t necessary, though, because while Young needed long solos to make up for his thin voice, Jacklin’s strong-yet-vulnerable delivery makes her point clear enough. Through her whistle-y warble, she details a relationship that’s deteriorating, not because of betrayal or incompatibility, but because of over-familiarity, reflecting on the sorrow of realizing there’s no longer a spark and having no better reason to call things off than boredom. There’s no way to feel like the hero in that situation, and the tension in the song’s climax captures the dilemma of doing what’s right for yourself without destroying someone else. Heavy shit for someone with such a pretty voice.
15. “Harmony Hall” – Vampire Weekend
The world’s first taste of a post-Rostam Batmanglij Vampire Weekend, “Harmony Hall” stood out on first listen for its unapologetically jammy instrumentation, a surprising left turn for a band whose previous record bordered on the symphonic. Despite its bright exterior, “Harmony Hall” is as anxious and searching as anything from Modern Vampires of the City, as Ezra Koenig vacillates between the joy of starting a family and the fear of seeing a group of villains enter the halls of power. That may make its almost celebratory sound feel confused or misplaced, but it lends itself to an exuberant form of concern and protest that can feel like a rapturous release or, at the very least, a nervous, worried laugh one tries to hide underneath dancing and bright music.
14. “A BOY IS A GUN*” – Tyler, the Creator
“A BOY IS A GUN*” samples the Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s “Bound,” which also served as the basis for Kanye West’s “Bound 2,” but where the Yeezus cut revels in a tumultuous yet opulent marriage, “A BOY IS A GUN*” is based in something grounded and realistic. Essentially one half of a lover’s spat set to a starry-eyed R&B track and some well-placed machine gun fire, “A BOY IS A GUN*” juxtaposes romantic dreams with harsh domestic reality. The instrumental may sound like someone soaring through the sky on the wings of perfect love, but the lyrics get nasty, with Tyler complaining about his lover’s passive aggression, fashion choices, and proximity to his ex all the while conceding that he’s his favorite “garcon.” It’s nasty, almost toxic, but, ultimately, just a thorny reaction to the helpless feeling of having your mood be dependent on the affections and attention of another person. Love… it sucks.
13. “Gretel” – (Sandy) Alex G
I wasn’t a fan of all the experiments (Sandy) Alex G threw at the wall on House of Sugar, but “Gretel” stands out as a riveting synthesis of his bedroom pop origins and his Daniel Lopatin-esque fascinations with pitch shifting and new age-y synths. Opening with a mish-mash of helium inflected vocals and glitchy drums machines, “Gretel” ekes out an unlikely acoustic riff that pushes and pulls like a tide before dropping into a verse that layers pan flute-imitating keys, electric guitars, and manipulated and unmanipulated vocals that find Alex called to overconsumption and decadence like the fairy tale girl of the song’s title. He ends up shaking himself out of this stupor and tightening things up to make some bold declarations about how he’ll never be knocked off track and “how good people got to fight to exist.” Things end up melting into the same intro passage as before, so who knows if he or his characters actually end up pushing through the world’s temptations. Either way, “Gretel” stands as a bold statement of purpose for a new era in the young Philadelphian’s career.
12. “Jonny” – Faye Webster
The beauty of Faye Webster’s songwriting is how simple yet evocative her depictions of loneliness are. Eschewing fancy metaphors and overwrought imagery to describe her broken heart, “Jonny” opens with Webster staring at a plain white wall, not asking for much more than happiness and someone to talk to other than her dog. Eventually, as the cool organ/bass/drums trio accompanying her unfurls to include weeping horns and strings, her thoughts turn to her title ex and never leave, leading the song out in a kind of perma-chorus. This elegant turn suggests that, as much as we try to abstract our loneliness and turn the focus to ourselves, it’s more often than not a symptom of a particular person’s absence from our lives. Any sense we try to make of it, any art we try to convey our feelings through, will always be directed at them. To some, that may feel romantic, to others, it may feel hopeless, but I’m sure we can all agree it makes for a hell of a pretty song.
11. “This Life” – Vampire Weekend
The conversation surrounding Vampire Weekend has always been colored by class and privilege, and though they’ve emerged as one of the most enduring indie rock bands of their generation, there will always be a subset of people who look at VW and see a bunch of Columbia grads in polos playing music that sounds like a rip-off of Paul Simon’s rip-off of South African music. All while singing about people who’d fit right in a Noah Baumbach movie too! Were this five years ago, I might concede that their critics have a point. But ever since the release of “This Life,” it’s never been more evident that VW’s critics just aren’t listening close enough.
“This Life,” which kicks off with a great line about how it’s impossible to run away from your problems even after you’ve left New York (“Baby I know pain is as natural as the rain/I just thought it didn’t rain in California”), is Koenig’s admission that he — and, by extension, his generation — have taken their comfort, wealth, and the progress they’ve seen for granted. But, now, age and parenthood have made those struggles hard to ignore. Buoyed by the band’s catchiest riff since “A-Punk” and an impossibly danceable beat, “This Life” sees Koenig come clean on his naïveté in the face of creeping racism, (“Baby, I know hate is always waiting at the gate”/I just thought we locked the gate when we left in the morning”), militarism (“And I was told that war was how we landed on these shores/I just thought the drums of war beat louder warnings”), and his inability to keep up the footloose and fancy-free pretensions of his youth. The interpolated iLoveMakonnen lines in the chorus are about a personal relationship, sure, but the personal revelation they describe provides the spark for a political one, as Koening reveals that he’s also been stepping out on “this life”/”and all its suffering.” It’s a stark admission that he’s been getting off easy his whole life and that he’s realized he may be too late to actually do anything about it now. Heck, it seems like the only thing he can do is spin it into a happy-sounding song.
10. “Lark” – Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen lamented being pigeon-holed as a “sad, cartoon country girl” during the album cycle for My Woman, and, while that album had its share of assertive tracks, none were quite as striking as “Lark,” the opener from 2019’s All Mirrors. Despite the grandeur and majesty suggested by its massive strings and orchestral structure, “Lark” is a deeply personal song that sees Olsen filled with wishes and regrets (“If only we could start again”/Pretending we don’t know each other”) but under no illusions that things need to end (“All we’ve done here is blind one another”). The track’s emotional clarity is rivaled only by the bigness of its sound. Even though All Mirrors was largely defined by Olsen’s further embrace of synths and drum machines, “Lark” feels as organic as the great American wilderness. The instrumental steadily rises for the first two minutes or so on the back of a hammering drumbeat and some tense strings before receding to allow Angel to gather herself. After another slow build, it crashes in an avalanche of strings, drums, guitars, and Angel’s vengeful vocals, sounding as if she were an almighty goddess commanding the sonic squall. I mean, I always knew she was a goddess — it’s good to hear her come to the realization, as well.
9. “Dylan Thomas” – Better Oblivion Community Center
Built around a snappy AABCCB rhyme scheme and delivered via a punchy folk rock tune, “Dylan Thomas” the song sounds like something Dylan-Thomas-the-poet fan Bob Dylan would write if he were a bit more lucid, a lot more cynical, and much more millennial. Sung by members of the generations old (Connor Oberst) and new (Phoebe Bridgers) guard’s, the track rolls its eyes at leaders who wrap themselves in the flag and the people who give them way too much credit (“The talking heads are saying/The king is only playing/A game of four-dimensional chess”) before descending into a bout of self-pity and self-destruction. The song’s crusty, cynical mindset is refreshing in an era of music where musicians tend to lean on earnestness and openness, and its acknowledgment that the desire to drink yourself to death to brush off the world around you is actually a poorly conceived method of avoiding pain and panic is what makes it more than just a catchy tune.
8. “True Blue” – Mark Ronson feat. Angel Olsen
“True Blue” begins with a false intro that finds Angel Olsen, accompanied only by an organ, sounding far-off and distorted, as if playing on a worn-down 45, and like this is just another sad song from the queen of sad songs. But then the track remembers it’s produced by “Uptown Funk” mastermind Mark Ronson, spits out some “fast forward” noises, and snaps into a galloping groove before Olsen chimes back in through her lower register with imagery that could really be about any kind of ill-fated romantic encounter. Her voice steadily rises as the song enters the chorus and the bass becomes rubberier, the guitars more incandescent, and her desperation grows, declaring that she ran to the person she addressing, that they know why, and that she loves the way they look in her eyes. On one level, it’s pure dance floor magic: the kind of easy rocking dance-pop jam that feels rare in a pop landscape that’s all but abandoned subtlety and texture. On another, it’s the best version of what Ronson has described as his “sad bangers.” Olsen’s descent from the sultry disco queen of the verse to the desperate girl of the chorus displays the range of not only her vocal ability but also a genre that could be accused of lacking emotional range. At the very least, it’s an important reminder that even sad girls like to dance, too.
7. “Drunk II” – Mannequin Pussy
The thing about drinking to deal with your problems is that it’s not a particularly good idea, and, when you think about it, it just opens you up to a whole new set of problems. Such is Mannequin Pussy frontwoman Marisa Dabice’s dilemma on “Drunk II”, a righteous breakup anthem that’s also the most charging and driving rock song of the year. The more she drinks to forget her ex, the deeper a well of regret and emptiness she falls into, and the more helpless she feels. “And everyone says to me/’Missy you’re so strong”/”But what if I don’t want to be?” she asks. Her answer can be found in every bit of “Drunk II” — from its instant classic riff, furious drumming, and the vicious bass rip that loads up the outro. The band may sound tight as hell, but this is music as pure release, a coordinated attack on the notion of staying composed for the sake of staying composed, a validation of any desperate and despairing moment you’ve ever felt. Dabice may close the song by asserting “I am alone,” but the mere act of rounding up her bandmates to produce something so stunning is confirmation enough that not all is lost, and that solace can be found one power chord at a time.
6. “Unbearably White” – Vampire Weekend
Yes, I know you all think “Hannah Hunt” and its portrait of an ill-fated couple who’ve run off together is the best Vampire Weekend song of the decade, but allow me to submit “Unbearably White,” “Hannah Hunt’s” self-deprecatingly titled spiritual sequel, for consideration. If “Hannah Hunt” is about two twenty-somethings who slowly begin to lose trust in each other, then “Unbearably White” is about two thirty-somethings who’ve just realized that something they’ve invested a lot of time and emotional resources into has run its course, even if they just can’t admit it’s time to cut bait yet. Featuring the most pensive bongo drums ever recorded, “Unbearably White” opens up with two people avoiding each other — a narrator hikes up a snowy mountain to avoid their significant other’s gaze, their significant other retreats to the bedroom to write on a similarly pristine page — in an attempt to postpone the inevitable “avalanche” of their separation. Despite his gentle tone and the general sad chillness of the song, Ezra Koenig tries to end the song flippantly, suggesting that they should just “Call it a day/”Call it a night,” even though to do so would be “Callous and cold”/”And just unbearably white,” treating the act of ripping off an emotional band aid as some WASPy, bourgeois affectation. But, as he starts this refrain, the instruments behind him begin to twinkle, and he repeats the first half of the first verse as if suddenly remembering how he felt before. Eventually, this deteriorates into a high, searching “you,” that gets repeated and is also the last thing we hear in the song — an unfinished thought delivered by a misty-eyed man who, despite his best efforts, can’t deny that he’s heartbroken.
5. “Not” – Big Thief
The lyrical conceit of “Not” is almost comically simple. Adrienne Lenker gives a fairly comprehensive list of what “it” is not, without ever actually bothering to tell us what “it” actually is. But this constant negation opens the door to some beautiful, vibrant imagery, painting a portrait of a haunting world that defies description, and is, therefore, more defined by what it is not than what it actually is. But “Not” is less about verbal poetry than it is stretching Big Thief’s composite elements — Lenker’s spectral vocals, her and Buck Meeks’ dueling guitars, and a rhythm section that holds everything together with an almost cavalierly loose grip — to their limit, climaxing with a guitar solo that’s raw, feral, and chaotic. Big Thief have spent the last four years releasing records that keep these wild, snarling sounds bubbling underneath a genteel folk surface — on “Not” they finally let them loose, reforming their own identity and just beginning to tap into their potential.
4. “Superbike” – Jay Som
90s nostalgia was one of the most identifiable trends of the 2010s, and no song better imitates the era than “Superbike,” Jay Som’s lush lead single from Anak Ko. Kicking off with a jangly riff Clinton Era riff, “Superbike” isn’t about telling a story so much as it’s about setting a mood, evoking the feeling of tearing down the road in its namesake vehicle as the sun begins to set on the horizon. A wordless chorus and cloudy synths add to the track’s ethereal quality, and about two-thirds of the way through it begins to build to a joyous release. That droning guitar solo kicks in and you can feel yourself close your eyes, lean back, and let go of the handlebars, melting with the world around, worried not about past nor future but this single moment, in bliss and at peace.
3. “The greatest” – Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey has spent most of her career paying homage to iconic American women of the mid-20th century, be they Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, or Nancy Sinatra. But on “The greatest,” the former Lizzy Grant reveals that the one artist she may have the most in common with is…Billy Joel? It may lack the Broadway bombast, but “The greatest’s” elegiac tone and apocalyptic themes make it a natural successor to “Miami 2017” in terms of songs with which to ring in Armageddon. But it’s not just the talk of great cities falling and plaintive pianos that beg the Del Rey/Joel comparisons: lines like “I miss New York and I miss the music”/”Me and my friends, we miss rock ‘n’ roll” bridge the boomer/millennial divide by providing a common place and subject for nostalgia. Time becomes the only variable, although, given Del Rey’s penchant for blending eras of pop culture together, this, too, becomes irrelevant (“The culture is lit and I’ve had a ball,” Del Rey sings before an angelic classic rock guitar solo). Eventually, her voice drops and she begins to fade, offering up hazy observations of the world crumbling around her, sounding like a Twitter feed flickering to death as society crumbles and the Internet goes dark forever. My generation may be as nostalgic as our parents’, but our culture is all digital — what happens when the lights goes out forever? Who or what will tell our history?
Most likely, it’ll be this song. Finding a generational anthem can be tough in this monocultureless world we’re living in, and “The greatest” may just be the closest we’ll get. It’s Del Rey’s “Life on Mars?” Her “Whiter Shade of Pale.” A collision of imagery, poetry, and pop culture references that will come to define what it meant to be a millennial and live through this decade, as well as a moving ballad that doesn’t skimp on the theatrically and melodrama. Our children and grandchildren might not get it, but we’ll always remember how 2019 felt. It’ll have felt like “The greatest.”
2. “Chance” – Angel Olsen
Something about Angel Olsen’s music has always felt aggressively tasteful and timeless to me. In another universe she’s a Norah Jones-like figure, an artist young enough to credibly be called fresh but with a mature enough soul to reign in older listeners. Olsen plays out that alternate history through “Chance,” the stunning conclusion to All Mirrors, an old-fashioned show stopper that would sound just as good sung Judy Garland in Carnegie Hall as it does on a 2019 Jagjaguwar release. It’s the very definition of bittersweet, as Olsen accepts the finality of eternal love by recognizing its impossibility, choosing instead to focus on the here and now so as not to lose an opportunity to actually get to know the object of her affections. The melody peaks gracefully before swooping down as Olsen begins to describe herself as an actress (“I’m walking through the scenes”/I’m saying all the lines”) before concluding in her wistful coda that “It’s hard to say forever love.” It’s a paradox: Olsen is following the script of a successful relationship, but the fact that she has to follow a script is proof enough that this love is impermanent, as all things are. But if all things are impermanent, what do we have to lose? Or as Angel would put it “Forever’s just so far”/”Why don’t you say it with me now”/”With all of your heart?”
1. “Seventeen” – Sharon Van Etten
It feels like a bit of a crutch to compare any and all singers from the Great State of New Jersey to Bruce Springsteen, but to what other artist should I compare Sharon Van Etten’s epic, moving use of synths and drum machines on a song about youth and the passage of time? To what other voice should I compare Van Etten’s cathartic yowl before the final chorus? Van Etten may be singing about the way she’s seen New York (and herself) change over the past two decades or so, but the Garden State is all over “Seventeen,” which in its pleas to Van Etten’s younger self grasps at a sense of romance and freedom in the face of lurching and churning machines, like a sunset drive along the Turnpike.
The advice song is a time-honored tradition in rock and roll, but most lack the time-warping introspection of “Seventeen,” which finds Van Etten addressing a younger version of herself, a conceit that would be hokey if it weren’t handled with such unapologetic gravity. Instead of regretting foolish things she did when she was young, Van Etten laments that she can’t counsel her younger self and show her what she’d grow up to become, but then contradicts this desire by admitting– in a striking bridge– that the younger Sharon would be “Afraid that you’ll be just like me.” Van Etten never unpacks that line, but I think that’s what helps make this song so universal and an instant classic. We’ll all grow old someday, and we’ll all reminisce on our youth. But Van Etten suggests that, in some ways, the romanticized freedom of youth is an illusion, that we’re constantly held captive by the terrifying blankness of the future, that we become what we once feared we would, maybe because it’s destiny, maybe because when you try too hard to avoid becoming something you end up becoming it after all. The only solace we get is knowing everything’s alright in the end. But that’s a comfort only our older selves will ever know, and the time we spend worrying about the future as scared and trembling kids feels wasted in hindsight. How do we bridge that gap and reach our younger selves?
Scream, Van Etten suggests. Scream as loud as you can, so they here you across the Hudson River, so that it rings around in the Holland Tunnel, breaks every window in every neighborhood in that constantly shifting city just past Liberty Island. There’s no way to know if they’ll hear us. There’s no way to know if it’ll help. But we can at least try.