It took only until 2019 for it to happen, but finally one song managed to break that seemingly unimpeachable record for the longest-serving chart-topper in history. All it took was a rapper we had never heard of before (Lil Nas X), a washed-up country star (Billy Ray Cyrus) and a beat based off an old Nine Inch Nails instrumental. The result? Literally the biggest song of all time.
In truth, 2019, with its playlists and politics, its rabid fandoms and hits so random, was a truly striking year: one where the success of Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" let the world know how little we as listeners cared about genre. Is the song two or three years old? Doesn't matter: Lizzo became a star off singles she put out two whole albums ago. The English language? Maybe it used to be important, but as "Gangnam Style" and "Despacito" taught us, a hit can be a hit regardless of shared vocabulary, which is why some of the biggest pop acts of the year were BTS and Blackpink: K-pop sensations that sold out arenas at an astonishing clip.
So now that we can fire up a streaming service and have a galaxy of songs to command at will, we've sorted through the fresh faces and old warhorses to provide the 25 best releases that 2019 has to offer. Starting with...
One-time "The X Factor" contestant Lucy Spraggan truly never needed TV exposure to get famous — but it certainly helped in her native U.K., leaving the show in 2012 and suddenly getting chart placements and critical notices for her conversational folk-pop style. Yet that was a long time ago, and while she has never really made any impressions in the U.S., if any record was going to get her notices stateside, it'd be "Today Was a Good Day," her fifth full-length. Filled with easy, strummable melodies and a warm glow to the production, Spraggan, as always, lands it with the lyrics. Whether it be on the apocalyptically romantic "End of the World" or the extremely meta "Don't Play This On the Radio", she always turns worn clichés into fresh new concepts, waiting for eternity in "The Waiting Room" for her love-at-first-sight to maybe, hopefully come back. It's a singer-songwriter album brimming with personality, and by the time you're done with it, you'll too be noting that "today was a good day."
Gender fluidity as a concept has received mainstream exposure in the past several years, with pioneers like Wendy Carlos opening the doors for a current wave of incredible musicians who just so happen to be transgender or nonbinary, ranging from Laura Jane Grace to Left at London to, very recently, pop star Sam Smith. Instupendo (also known as Aidan Peterson) has been putting out an EP a year for the past three years, and 2019's entry, "Boys by Girls," marries a lush ambient-pop style that wouldn't sound out of place played next to The 1975's more spacey tracks with lyrics that celebrate and twist gender norms freely and beautifully. From the seductive "Earring" to the truly extraordinary single "Cinderella" (with that beautiful line "I feel like a princess when I’m around you"), "Boys by Girls" is a stunning, progressive record that is as playlist friendly as it is coy with its tales of heartbreak and yearning. Remarkable stuff.
Ensemble Entendu has always been about dance music, but it has also always been about the drums. The duo — comprised of Astro Nautico Sam O.B. and his fellow artist and DJ friend Photay — put out their first album under the moniker in 2016, and it felt like a creation designed for the clubs: Sparse but focused beats, repeated vocal loops, and a change in percussion style with every song all added up to a distinct sound that borrowed from worldbeat as much as it did from current club trends. Their sophomore effort, however, is an escalation of their aesthetics in every way possible. From the striking (and ridiculously catchy) scene remembrance "Flat Talk" to the rolling midtempo keyboard work that is "Azalea Chuva" to the octagon-drum '80s pastiche that is "Time is Certainly Passing," the duo covers a lot of ground in this record's half-hour runtime, somehow finding a melody line that hooks us in and stays in our brains at least once a song but often even more than that. For our money, it might just be the best dance album to come out this year.
Following a five-year hiatus where Flying Lotus mastermind Steven Ellison put a lot of his efforts into making otherworldly gross-out horror films instead of more progressive experimental electro-soul music, some dismissed his sixth studio album, "Flamagra," upon release, saying that as inventive as Ellison was, he just couldn't match the power of past albums "You're Dead!" and "Cosmogramma." The more time one spends with "Flamagra," however, the more it reveals its trippy secrets. From its stellar list of guest spots (Solange, David Lynch, George Clinton, Anderson .Paak, an otherworldly Tierra Whack) to its occasional synth-funk workouts ("Takashi" is one hell of a jam), Ellison is pushing boundaries just as he always has. "Flamagra" is the sound of him having fun, getting weird and making the kind of albums that only Flying Lotus could make, and for that alone, we should be grateful.
By this point we all know the story: Carly Rae Jepsen emerged in 2012 with a universe-swallowing hit ("Call Me Maybe"), was dismissed as another manufactured radio star for a spell but came back with 2015's "Emotion," one of the most heralded pop records of the decade. It was some mighty fine vindication but — where does one go from there? If you're Carly Rae Jepsen, you just keep Carly Rae Jepsen-ing, manufacturing bops like it's nobody's business. "Dedicated" is another excellent record from the newly appointed queen of the four-minute dance-pop fantasia, although this time out things are a little bit more piano-based and just a little bit more sensual, particularly on the joyous '80s pastiche "Want You in My Room." It's a great record all around, but songs like "Julien," "Now That I Found You," "The Sound" and the celebratory "Feels Right" have become instant classics, proving that each new Carly Rae Jepsen album is just going to sound like another self-contained greatest hits album — and quite frankly, we're here for it.
U.K. modern disco outfit Crazy P have been putting out albums since 1998, with its core members, Chris Todd and James Baron, perfecting their craft over the course of several albums, integrating vocalist Danielle Moore around 2002. Initially goofy and party-starting, the gentle passing of time has aged and matured the band, the group getting only better and better at their groovy and distinct brand of dance song craft. The band's increasingly serious lyrical themes and ear for a good jam all coalesced into this year's "Age of the Ego," its best record and one of the year's best pop albums bar none. From the straight-ahead radio fire of "This Fire" to the spry funk of "Barefooted" to the anti-technology screed "The Witness" to the cinematic floor-filler of "Is This All it Seems," Crazy P show a deft mastery of styles on this full-length, sometimes pushing large thoughts about society through catchy hooks and addictive grooves. It's a party-starting masterpiece that might just get you to think on occasion too.
Jonathan Bremer is the bassist, and Morten McCoy is on the keyboards, and together this Danish duo has managed to craft a neo-classical sound that so easily crosses over to jazz and dub that one can be forgiven for not knowing exactly what genre to classify them in. While their sound has echoes of jazz contemporaries like Keith Jarrett and Matthew Shipp (in his calmer moments), Bremer/McCoy's unique melodic chemistry borders on hypnotic, as "Utopia," their fourth album, is an end-to-end work of immense beauty and one where no melody line or small piano flourish feels out of place. Often lush and sometimes even morose, "Utopia" benefits from careful, small touches, like the warm synth pad that enters the back half of closer "Determination," sealing that song with a cinematic kiss. It doesn't overwhelm the mix at all: It just comes in slowly and enhances the bassline that's already there. Individual song highlights are difficult with an album that is so clearly meant to be enjoyed as a single full-length listen, but by the time you've absorbed all 44 minutes of this stellar instrumental creation, your mind will feel like "Utopia" has already been achieved.
Spencer Sutherland appeared on "The X Factor" in 2017, and although his pipes were extraordinary, the young blue-eyed soul aficionado never got a chance to let his personality shine through on the show, leading him back to the drawing board, crafting single after single for digital consumption. The more Sutherland writes, the more he found his voice, and on his stunning "NONE of this has been about you" EP, he's managed to write some of the best pop songs of the year. From the hilarious breakup number "Sweater" to the acoustic admission of "It May Sound Strange," Sutherland covers a good amount of emotional territory in the course of these five songs,. But it's the title track that takes the cake, bringing in a gospel choir (that, in fact, is just him and a buddy looping themselves dozens of times over) to take a pretty decent pop song about self-deprecation and elevating it to levels of catharsis that not even Kanye's "Jesus is King" managed to pull off. Sutherland is more than just "a talent to watch" — he's fully arrived as a new breed of pop star.
If the British Afro-pop collective Ibibio Sound Machine is known for one thing, it's that this band refuses to make the same album twice. Merging contemporary African dance sounds with Western electro has worked well for the band in the past (especially during its explosive live sets), but "Doko Mien," its third full-length, shows the band pushing its sound into brand new directions. While its dabbled in slower, moodier pieces before, tracks like the hypnotic "Kuka" and the lovely "Guess We Found a Way" (which might arguably be the band's first ballad proper) showcase an emotional depth to the songwriting that's been only hinted at before. Yet the dancefloor-ready "Tell Me (Doko Mien)" and the horn-driven blast of throwback Afro-pop "Nyek Mien" showcases the collective still delivering its trademark brand of party-starting vibes as effortlessly as ever, thereby making "Doko Mien" its most diverse album to date.
Back in 1998, the Austin, Texas, rockers Fastball were riding high on the strength of alternative-pop era classics like "The Way" and "Out of My Head," with joint songwriters Tony Scalzo and Miles Zuniga trading off every other song (Oasis-style) to create an environment of friendly competition within each album. They never met those commercial heights again, but a 2016 Machine Gun Kelly/Camila Cabello duet that interpolated "Out of My Head" revived interest in the group, leading to a 2017 record called "Step Into the Light" and, eventually, 2019's most excellent "The Help Machine." Trading off songs just like the old days, there is a truly surprising diversity to the band's offerings here, whether it be the Chris Isaak-indebted desert grooves of "I Go South" or the contemporary power-pop of "All Gone Fuzzy." Opener "Friend or Foe" is a remarkable echo of their late-'90s sound and truly one of their finest songs to date, but the album's title track, an unexpected synth-driven groove rooted in a classic pop song buildup,that is the most jaw-dropping item here, as, after all these decades, the band is still experimenting, discovering new contours of their sound and sharing the extraordinary results with us. "The Help Machine" proves that Fastball is a pop songwriting machine that clearly needs no help at all.
A former MySpace sensation that drew the attention of industry powerhouses like Pharrell and Usher, the Malaysian-born powerhouse that is Yuna has fully come into her own as a singer-songwriter, with "Rouge," her fourth English-language album that proves to be an indelible slice of contemporary R&B. Filled to the brim with guest verses from the likes of Kyle, Little Simz and always-game Tyler, the Creator, "Rouge" still places Yuna's warm voice and conversational lyrics front and center, leading to neo-soul jams like "Castaway" and the disco-lite fantasia "Blank Marquee." Yuna sounds like she's having fun here in a way that her previous albums only hinted at, and unashamedly modern works like the sexy, bittersweet "(Not) The Love of My Life" prove that Yuna is an absolute force to be reckoned with. No kidding: This album came out in the middle of summer, and we've listened to it about once a week since. It's just that effortlessly enjoyable.
Sean Nelson — former frontman of the alt-rock greats Harvey Danger — has been working on his passion project for over 18 years. Whether it be performing it in a live revue or releasing draft versions of it on his website, "Nelson Sings Nilsson," his loving ode to the Harry Nilsson songbook, was reportedly in the mixing stages as early as 2012. Why it took until 2019 for Nelson to finally release his magnum opus we may never know, but with a 27-piece rock band/orchestra at his command, Nelson makes sure this is no mere covers record. Deftly interpreting Nilsson's greatest hits with wild new arrangements, Nelson treats Nilsson's tunes less like monoliths to be worshiped and more like sandboxes to play around in, which is why the old Monkee's hit "Daddy's Song" has a children's choir thrown in for good measure, "Without Her" pops with a fresh new orchestral flourish, and "Down" has Nelson stretching his nerdy rock wail to its absolute limit as a cacophony of instruments swirl around him. It's an imaginative record that is sometimes so wild in its production choices that it almost borders on unhinged — but it all makes sense. Every artistic choice and clever tempo inversion is done with a justified intention, which in turn adds depth to "Nelson Sings Nilsson": This is no fanboy mixtape or vanity project. No. This is Sean Nelson rediscovering everything he loves about pop music through a Nilsson-shaped mirror, and we're absolutely in love with what's being reflected back at us.
Almost a decade into her career, Betty Who remains one of the most underrated dance-pop divas in existence. The Australian singer peaked early with her signature song, "Somebody Loves You," but since then has put out numerous feel-good albums of pop wonderment that seem to just keep getting better. She claims that some major-label meddling in her sophomore album is what ultimately made her turn independent, but her newfound freedom is absolutely worth it if we get records as good as "Betty." Self-titled because she views it as a bit of a reintroduction to the world, Who's third full-length has a freshness and optimism that feels sorely lacking from so much of contemporary pop, with songs like "Ignore Me" and the phenomenal lead single "I Remember" coming off as the kind of tunes that would rule the radio if we lived in a dimension that was actually just. While her love of a good '80s pastiche will never go out of style ("Just Thought You Should Know" shimmers under neon lights), "Betty" succeeds because it showcases new parts of her songwriting we haven't seen before, with the sleek ballad "All This Woman" dripping with a raw sensuality, just as the lovely closer, "Stop Thinking About You," uses shiny melodies to gloss over some lyrics that are remarkably morbid upon close examination. Who really is leaving it all on the table, which is why when "The One" opens with a drum machine straight out of a late-'90s Max Martin production, you realize that Who is an ardent student of pop music who, finally answering to no one but herself, is ready to show the world who she really is.
You probably don't know the name Nate Mercereau, and that's OK. A multi-instrumentalist who frequently works with pop producer Ricky Reed, Mercereau is a studio dynamo who can be an in-the-pocket songwriter one moment and the world's best session musician the next, having played on great albums like Jay-Z's "4:44," Leon Bridges' "Good Thing," and Lizzo's "Cuz I Love You." Mercereau is still a hell of a tinkerer, and with "Joy Techniques," his solo debut, he was intent on making one of the most compelling instrumental albums of the year, effectively making a synth-driven guitar album that uses absolutely zero synths. Those sounds you hear on the record that you think came out of a keyboard? Guitars. Every single one of them. Pushed and pulled through pedals and filters many times over, the textures Mercereau achieves on "Joy Techniques" are technically mindblowing, but the genius of this album is just how Mercereau ties them into such incredible grooves. "Righteous Energy" slinks along with night-jazz energy, "See God..." is the best guitar freakout we've heard this side of The Mars Volta, and the album highlight, "This Simulation is a Good One," has one of the best funk tracks we've ever got lost in. In short: "Joy Techniques" is an absolute joy.
Since 2012, the fantastically named King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard have put out no less than 15 full-length albums. This kind of insane work ethic is admirable by itself, but even more impressive is how the band never puts out the same record twice: Each new full-length finds the Australian outfit try out a new rock idiom, somewhat echoing Ween at the peak of its powers. While much was made of its other 2019 release, "Infest the Rats' Nest," which showed the band going full-bore metal for the first time ever, we can't overlook its earlier boogie-rock experiment in the form of "Fishing for Fishies." Light psych elements meet a few blues-rock trademarks to create a record that's quirky, groovy and sometimes downright funny. But make no mistake: Such a cheery exterior distracts from the pure musicianship going on underneath. From the Allman-y grooves of "The Cruel Millennial" to the unabashed swamp-rock overtones of "This Thing" to the precious shuffle-folk vibes of the title track, "Fishing for Fishes" has the group mastering yet another rock aesthetic with endlessly relistenable results.
Nic Offer's long-running dance-rock outfit, !!!, was a beloved college-radio supported act at the start of the millennium, but as time has marched on, people seem to sleep on !!!, writing the band off as delivering more of the same year after year. This perception is a damn shame, given that since 2013's excellent "THR!!!ER," Offer's offerings have only gotten better, culminating with 2019's "Wallop," his eighth album and one of his most dynamic yet. With only one song stretching past the four-minute mark, Offer streamlines his sound into his most concise songs to date. But don't mistake brevity for compromise. There's still chaotic guitar lines, shouted vocals, rising synth pads and an inimitable sense of groove that can't be mistaken for any other act. If anything, "Wallop" exhibits how good Offer has become at getting the build-and-release aspect of his jams down to a science, as tracks like the fiery "Off the Grid" and the album highlight "$50 Million" evolve and grow before our very ears, the latter song taking off like a Talking Heads live cut in its finale. !!! records have always been sweaty, funky affairs, and nearly two decades into his career, Offer is still finding new shapes he can stretch his sound into. More, please.
If we're being completely honest, 2019 was an extraordinary year for rap singles, but surprisingly few breakthrough albums. Sure, 21 Savage's "a lot" is hands down the best song of the year, and Freddie Gibbs latest Madlib collaboration and British rapper Little Simz's breakout moment are all up for consideration,. But at the end of the day, Rapsody's "Eve" is the best rap album to come out this year (sorry, Tyler). This isn't any idle consolation for Rapsody, who is truly one of the hardest working MCs of the decade, as "Eve," her third solo full-length, is one of the most nuanced and considered LPs we've heard. Working with ace productions from Eric G and the ever-reliable 9th Wonder, clever samples of Phil Collins and Bjork help buttress Rapsody's strident, non-stop flow, dropping lyrical miracles with such a casual grace that you might have to replay some just to make sure you didn't miss anything ("Wonder how a bunch of sheep can have opinions on a G.O.A.T.?"). Dense, dynamic and brimming with confidence, Rapsody's moment has finally arrived and she's making the absolute most of it.
Back in 2010, the electro quirk-pop duo of the bird and the bee (consisting of singer-songwriter Inara George and mega-producer Greg Kurstin) unleashed the first volume of their "Interpreting the Masters" series, wherein they gave stylish makeovers to the biggest hits of Daryl Hall and John Oates. The album was a hit, and soon the group was mixing in Hall & Oates classics with its own self-penned favorites during live shows. Yet as time went on, the nagging question kept scratching at our minds: Which masters will they interpret next? The answer, surprisingly, was interpreting the works of hair metal kingpins Van Halen. While the band had already written a song about its love of its heroes before ("Diamond Dave," which is revised here), it's stunning to see the guitar noodlings of the legendary Eddie Van Halen workout "Eruption" redone as a piano-and-synth explosion, just as how George's cut-and-redone vocals for the intro to "Jump" give the song a striking new vibe. "Runnin' with the Devil," "Ain't Talking 'bout Love" and an assist from a horny Beck on "Hot for Teacher" all add up to one of the most surprising pop records of the year and one where we might have to make a few tough calls as to which version of these songs are now our favorites.
Durand Jones & The Indications had a lot of passion for early soul records but had little money to express that love, initially recording some songs using little more than a karaoke microphone. While its 2016 debut was raw and heartfelt, "American Love Call," the group's sophomore effort, was its first recorded in a professional studio, and the band benefits greatly from these higher-budget surroundings. With tracks that could easily be mistaken for '60s originals, "American Love Call" makes zero contemporary concessions, focusing entirely on creating a retro-soul experience. You can tell the band members are scholars of the form, as the way they produce the vocals in songs like "Don't You Know" requires a specific kind of touch; but goodness it works. String sections appear from time to time, the drums are crisp and light, and when the vibraphone comes in during the lovely "Too Many Tears," it feels like you're being transported into another decade entirely. What a thrilling little record this is.
When Friendly Fires broke through with its legendary 2008 debut and even-better 2011 dance-rock high watermark "Pala," people were excited to see where the hottest new U.K. club collective was going to go next. Instead of new chart highs or top-tier remix opportunities, the band disappeared for several years, only coming back in 2019 with "Inforescent" — and what a comeback it is. Mixing a variety of styles into tight, streamlined structures, "Inforescent" is everything you want from a dance album: full-throttle melodies; a mix of confident tones; no ballads. Whether it be the bustling bongos backing "Silhouettes," the chopped vocal loops of the dynamic "Heaven Let Me In," or the frisky, airy throwback pop of "Kiss and Rewind," Friendly Fires hasn't missed a step in its third full-length outing. In fact, it seems the multi-year break only made the band stronger.
Make no mistake: Ambient pioneer Tor Lundvall isn't afraid of traditional song structures. In fact, his 1997 album, "Passing Through Alone," had tons of tracks that he sung himself. Yet for all of the moody soundscapes Lundvall is best known for, there is a genuine thrill to hearing "A Strangeness in Motion," his compilation of previously unheard pop recordings that he had lying around on assorted tapes. Perhaps because these were never designed for public consumption, this grab-bag of tracks has an energy and joy to the construction that is downright infectious. "The Night Watch" moves with the moodiness of a John Maus song but remains catchy and accessible. "Flight" touches on John Hughes' soundtrack tropes, "The Melting Hour" has the spunk of an early Depeche Mode record and the sweet "Hidden" flutters like a gentle snow flurry made out of synth tones. The songs here don't break any new ground, but the key is that they don't need to: We recognize a stellar collection of pop songs when we hear them, and as it turns out, Lundvall's afterthoughts might be one of the year's most consistent and entertaining full-lengths.
Electro-swing is a unique subgenre that has its share of stars, and while Caravan Palace was clearly one of the most prominent bands of that movement, it was its 2015 album, "Robot Face," that showed the band not playing within the confines of electro-swing so much as making the genre work for its other explorations, using it more like a tool and less like a restriction. The result was a gamut of spectacular singles that launched the outfit into international fame, selling out tours year after year. No wonder it took Caravan Palace a while to come up with a follow-up, but goodness are we glad it took the time. More of a sequel to "Robot Face" than a change in directions, "Chronologic" continues giving us a stellar litany of horn-driven, sample-based dance songs that are as addictive as they are replayable. From the fantastic midtempo single "Miracle" to the playful stop-start punch of "Supersonics," it's clear that Caravan Palace is having the time of its life crafting a new set of dynamic songs, still incorporating swing samples into the aesthetic but also confident in its abilities as a live band as well. With any luck, we won't have to wait four more years until the next salvo.
Will Holland has been releasing music under his Quantic moniker since 2001, and although the multi-instrumentalist has managed to craft a huge amount of side projects in the decades that followed, Quantic was always his calling card, mixing instrumental dance grooves with guest vocal pop tracks to a thrilling effect. With "Atlantic Oscillations," his fifth album proper under the name (although, let's be real, it's hard to pin down what qualifies as a Quantic album and what doesn't in the complex Holland Songimatic Universe), there is such a joy of exploration within the record's hour-long runtime. Whether it be the xylophone-driven curio "You Used to Love Me" with Denitia, the synth/Afropop collision that is "Tierra Mama," or the spry and emotional string quartet that leads off opening track "Divergence," no two songs on "Atlantic Oscillations" sound even remotely the same but still clearly bear the same creative fingerprints. It's the kind of record where your favorite song will change every few months or so, as there is just so much depth and cleverness on display that it never once goes stale. Once the "Sinnerman"-piano lines start on the symphonic-funk title track, you realize that you're in for one hell of a treat.
By this point, we all know the story: While promoting "Juice" and her third album, "Cuz I Love You," at the start of 2019, a well-timed placement of an older song in a Netflix movie led to Lizzo's two-year-old single, "Truth Hurts," to become a dynamite chart-topper. Then "Good As Hell," a single even older than that, started following suit. It's quite a success story, but we can't let those radio staples overshadow the fact that "Cuz I Love You" is one hell of a pop record. Always in fine vocal form, Lizzo nails heartbreak with her comedic worldview on tracks like the great "Jerome" and fully lives her Missy Elliott fantasy by having Misdemeanor herself show up on "Tempo." From the throwback rap stylings of "Exactly How I Feel" to the contemporary pop ploy that is "Like a Girl," Lizzo's latest is a labor of love, the kind of major-label glow-up where the bigger budget only enhances what was already there: an immensely talented performer who is just now getting her breakthrough. Now tell us honestly: What do we have to do to get "Soulmate" released as a single? Can it come out now, or do we have to wait two years?
No matter how some people in the industry tried to talk their way out of it, the truth of the matter is that modern country radio just doesn't play the music of female artists. It's one of the industry's more unfortunate aspects despite artists like Miranda Lambert and a resurgent Kacey Musgraves crossing over onto the pop charts with some of the most critically acclaimed albums of the decade. Amanda Shires got the idea of making an all-female response to the legendary country supergroup The Highwaymen (which was comprised of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson), and before long, she managed to rope in Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris, the quartet soon putting out an album produced by country music's current go-to producer Dave Cobb. All of this background is great, but in truth, The Highwomen's debut is a warm little gem, where songwriting duties are equally split. Yet hearing all four of these distinct artists blend their voices together is nothing short of a thrill. "Redesigning Women" may be the big lead single, but honestly it's the Shires — and Jason Isbell-penned "If She Ever Leaves Me" sung passionately by Carlile — that has us coming back time and time again.