2019 was a year of upheaval in the pop music world, with new voices rising to the fore through unexpected pathways. Lizzo’s career was jolted forward by a Netflix trailer; Lil Nas X rode TikTok and Twitter to the top of the charts. Stars emerged out of Brooklyn (Pop Smoke), Spain (Rosalía) and Nigeria (Burna Boy), expertly wielding social media and huge streaming numbers to captivate audiences across the world.
And as new voices claimed the spotlight, some of pop’s biggest names, from Charli XCX to Dua Lipa, continued to put out irresistible, vital earworms, as well. Here are TIME’s best songs of 2019.
10. “Crowded Table,” The Highwomen
The fact that The Highwomen even exists is impressive. The new supergroup brings together four of country music’s most prolific women: Maren Morris, a country-pop star with powerful vocals and mainstream hits like “The Middle”; Brandi Carlile, the Grammy-recognized folk artist whose work is marked by wry brilliance; Amanda Shires, a notable fiddler and country mainstay; and Natalie Hemby, the heavy-hitting songwriter who’s been the secret weapon for artists like Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and Lady Gaga on A Star Is Born. That all four found the time to make an album together speaks to their commitment to claiming space for women’s voices in a historically patriarchal industry. And that their music—as exemplified by the beautiful ballad “Crowded Table”—weaves in political statements only adds a layer of richness. “I want a house with a crowded table,” they insist, “and a place by the fire for everyone / Let us take on the world while we’re young and able, and bring us back together when the day is done.” The line works as a mission statement for these four distinct artists: make great music and complicate our definitions of womanhood, motherhood and femininity in the process. They make that statement over an unabashedly pretty melody, going in and out of duets and harmonies with seamless, generous sweetness. (Bruner)
9. “Simmer,” Mahalia ft. Burna Boy
Ever since going viral for a Colors Studios performance in 2017, the British singer Mahalia has enjoyed a steady rise, scoring hits including “I Wish I Missed My Ex” and the Ella Mai-assisted “What You Did.” On “Simmer,” she repurposes the burbling bassline of the 1997 dancehall classic “Who Am I” by Beenie Man, using it to anchor a love story in which a relationship verges on boiling over. A sultry and irrepressible appearance from the Nigerian singer Burna Boy, one of the year’s breakout stars, turns the song from a B-side into a global summer anthem. (Chow)
8. “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” Caroline Polachek
Caroline Polachek has long worked on the fringes of the mainstream pop world: she fronted the indie pop band Chairlift for a decade and racked up songwriting credits for Beyoncé, Solange, Charli XCX and Travis Scott. But she takes center stage on this year’s Pang, her major label debut album with Sony. The best of the bunch is “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” a cheekily named song propelled by handclaps and strutting muted guitars. But while the song sounds readymade for a night out, it drips with lovesick anxiety: “I cry on the dancefloor, it’s so embarrassing,” Polachek confesses. The music video—in which she skips and spins in cowboy boots across a barren, hellish landscape—perfectly reflects the song’s paradoxically carefree potency. (Chow)
7. “Too Much,” Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen has built a cult following on the power of her brand of pure, heart-on-your-sleeve pop. (Her widely-praised third album was even nakedly called Emotion.) “Too Much” synthesizes everything that makes the Canadian artist, best known for her 2012 earworm “Call Me Maybe,” beloved. It’s got relatable, on-the-nose lyrics; a commitment to catchy, sweet melodies; all sung with Jepsen’s intimately breathy vocals. Most of all, “Too Much” feels intensely honest. “When I feel it, then I feel it too much / I’ll do anything to get the rush,” she sings, then turns it around: “Is this too much?” Her ability to swing from wild joy to insecurity—all over a shimmering dance tune that’s as infectious as anything she’s produced—is a triumph. (Bruner)
6. “Crime Pays,” Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Bandana, the widely acclaimed album from rapper Freddie Gibbs and producer Madlib, was forged in trying circumstances: Gibbs says he wrote most of the record in an Austrian jail while awaiting his eventual acquittal from sexual assault charges. Given this initial disconnect between the pair, it’s astonishing how perfectly Gibbs’ gravelly rhymes coalesce with Madlib’s sun-bleached soul production. “Crime Pays,” in particular, perfectly toes the line between their aesthetic sensibilities: Madlib unearths a pristine sample from jazz fusion artist Walt Barr that conjures both nostalgia and unlimited possibility, while Gibbs confronts the darker realities of chasing the American dream: “Diamonds in my chain, yeah, I slang but I’m still a slave / Twisted in the system, just a number listed on the page.” (Chow)
5. “Don’t Start Now,” Dua Lipa
On her 2017 debut album, Britain’s Dua Lipa established herself as a honey-voiced rising star of mainstream pop. On “Don’t Start Now,” the debut single off her sophomore project, she proves she has something to add to the conversation. And that something is a propulsive, infectious disco sensibility. Made with juicy synths, bubbly percussion and bouncy vocal twists, it’s a tune that celebrates independence and promises joy in the process. Lipa made her name on the cheeky breakup empowerment hit “New Rules”; “Don’t Start Now” follows in that breezy, forward-thinking tradition. “Though it took some time to survive you,” she sings, “I’m better on the other side.” It’s the sound of a new pop era. (Bruner)
4. “Juice,” Lizzo
Lizzo’s “Juice” is a funk-soul self-love dance anthem built to inspire confidence. That’s no fluke; her long-gestating career as a singer, songwriter and flutist has taken off this year thanks to her commitment to the goal of making listeners find assurance in her feel-good, fun-loving lyrics and danceable beats. She kicks things off by turning a fairy tale trope into an affirmation: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, don’t say it, ’cause I know I’m cute,” and ends the song with a bold giggle. With a retro-sounding melody that resonates across generational tastes, the song has already become a dancefloor mainstay. “Juice” sounds like it was perfected in a test kitchen, equal parts joy, cheeky lyricism and timeless appeal. (Bruner)
3. “Welcome to the Party,” Pop Smoke
While mainstream rap is still dominated by trap—the crawling subgenre from Atlanta—artists have also been looking north and taking elements from drill, Chicago’s much faster and frenetic style. “Welcome to the Party,” which was inescapable in Brooklyn this summer and fall, manically races forward, with the 20-year-old rapper’s syllables spilling out in terrifying, clipped bursts. Pop Smoke growls both his threats and boasts in unruly, unpredictable clusters—but even more jarring is producer 808Melo’s bassline, which seems to bubble out of the deepest recesses of the American psyche. (Chow)
2. “Con Altura,” Rosalía x J Balvin
“Con Altura” is a record-breaking collaboration between two Spanish-speaking artists with distinct backgrounds but powerful influences: Spain��s Rosalía is making a name for herself with flamenco-inflected alt-pop on works like her Grammy-nominated, poetically inspired second album El Mal Querer, while J Balvin reigns as one of Latin America’s reggaeton kings and one of the most popular artists on the planet, thanks to his international chart-toppers like “Mi Gente” and “I Like It.” Together on “Con Altura,” they found a sweet spot that mixes a number of musical traditions, from dembow to hip-hop to reggaeton, while still flexing their individual powers. Over spare, specific percussion, Rosalía’s voice rings out with lilting, sing-song precision; Balvin provides a balancing, stable counterpoint. The combination is potent and haunting, hinting at the diversity of Latin music and the creative future it is inevitably heading toward. (Bruner)
1. “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X
“Old Town Road” contains many opposing truths. It’s both underdog and behemoth; eye-rollingly trivial and slyly progressive; radio-ready hit and oddball meme. This summer, it was both a distraction and the thing you couldn’t escape.
And it was this shapeshifting ability that made “Old Town Road” the ideal cultural artifact for 2019, in its endlessly iterative and argumentative nature. Whether people went online to criticize it, dance to it or remix it, everyone interacted with it some way, continuously pouring fuel as it set record after record.
And as Lil Nas X added to the fire by releasing a stream of remixes, the song became less a single record and more a fluid canvas for transgression. Each new version ruptured a new boundary or norm—whether it was Billy Ray Cyrus singing about his Maserati or BTS member RM delivering bilingual wordplay. Once scorned as outsider—both to Nashville and the music industry at large—Lil Nas himself became the gatekeeper, and then opened the door as wide as possible for everyone else. (Chow)
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