The 20 best songs of 2019

<span>Composite: Getty</span>
Composite: Getty

More than 50 Guardian music writers were polled for their favourite albums and tracks of the year, and a bewilderingly complex spreadsheet was created to tally their votes. Ahead of our countdown of the resulting 50 best albums of the year, we’re kicking off with a list of the 20 best songs. We’ve also put as many as possible of the 593 tracks that were voted for into a Spotify and Apple Music playlist below (click on the Spotify or Apple Music icons at the top right of each playlist to access the entire playlists).

Best tracks of 2019


Fat White Family – Feet

For the Serfs Up! album, which opened with this track, Fat White Family moved to Sheffield to get off heroin – but, it transpired, this merely meant not injecting it. That paradox suffuses Feet: its groove has very much got its shit together, but there’s still a sickness at its heart. It’s like a sleazy wallflower who slinks out of the dingy corner of some dive bar, and, snake-hipped, starts throwing some unexpectedly impressive disco shapes on the floor. BBT


Lizzo – Tempo (feat Missy Elliott)

Lizzo made her name this year with her powerfully positive affirmations of selfhood, but Tempo tees off in much snarkier style: “Slow songs, they for skinny hoes,” she declares. “I’m a thick bitch, I need tempo.” Sure enough, this is a sterner, clubbier track than her other big 2019 hits Juice and Truth Hurts (the latter not eligible for this list as it first came out in 2017). Her incitement to cunnilingus is admirably casual, but Missy Elliott steals the show with her menagerie of purrs and trills. BBT


Mark Ronson – Late Night Feelings (feat Lykke Li)

Self-destructive behaviour wouldn’t be so common if there were no thrill involved: the fantasy that your desires might pan out after all, even though you know there’s not a hope in hell. It’s that perverse optimism that Mark Ronson captures in Late Night Feelings. Even as Lykke Li catalogues the torments doled out by her would-be lover, the distant steel pan chime, sparkling disco chorus and sugar-spun melodies maintain the glimmering mirage of possibility. LS


Normani – Motivation

Motivation is the pop equivalent of an Olympics-winning gymnastics routine: Normani serves take-it-or-leave-it cool, effortless vocal workouts and nonchalant cheerleader authority on the Ariana Grande co-write. In the video, her athletic choreography and throwback bellybutton piercing evoke the drilled spectacles of millennium-era Britney and Beyoncé. The former Fifth Harmony member swiftly establishes her own brand of excellence, and demands that lovers and fans alike recognise her game. LS


AJ Tracey – Ladbroke Grove

AJ Tracey might have been a touch worried about his mainstream prospects: the first single from his album only reached No 18 in the charts, and he was upstaged on one of his biggest tracks to date, Thiago Silva, by the bucket-hatted Alex going viral with AJ’s verse on stage with Dave at Glastonbury. Luckily, he had Ladbroke Grove up his sleeve. This shamelessly nostalgic UK garage track dominated the summer, AJ toasting like a club MC being heckled with champagne. No street corner was left unmolested by the words “Yo, it’s the hyperman set!” blasting from a hatchback’s open windows. BBT


Lana Del Rey – The Greatest

Having the freedom not to care is harder to come by for some people than others – and harder to come by at all these days. Those rare moments of reprieve aren’t the banner memories of mental supercuts, but fleeting sensations you don’t miss until they’re gone. On The Greatest, Lana Del Rey watches those squandered moments slip away on the breeze as news of missile attacks, forest fires and Kanye West darkens the horizon. Elegant and valedictory, it’s a masterpiece of west coast songwriting classicism: “I guess I’m signing off after all,” she gasps, and a rich, rusty guitar solo soars out of the gate, languid and carefree as a skateboarder sailing along the boardwalk. LS


Stormzy – Vossi Bop

With a Glastonbury headline slot on the horizon and a crown to maintain, you’d be forgiven for thinking Stormzy would return with some kind of weighty, state-of-the-nation opus. Nah: the twitchy, tantalising Vossi Bop was a raw reminder of his charisma, the way he kisses words like the pope anointing a baby (“gyal say I’m bougie”) and how pretenders wither to dust in his gaze. “The rules are kinda different when you’re baddin’ up the game,” indeed. LS

Charisma … Stormzy. Photograph: Anthony Harvey/Rex/Shutterstock


Dave – Black

Unlike the three tracks from his album Psychodrama that reached the Top 10, Black scraped the Top 40, and – being a bleak, jaded treatise on contemporary racism – it stuck out like a sore thumb amid the poppy stuff on daytime Radio 1. Dave confronts one ill after another like he can scarcely believe his own words: colonialism, social mobility, media sensationalism … but ultimately, there’s such pride as he considers his hair, his history, his skin. BBT


Big Thief – Not

With two albums in 2019 stuffed full of instantly classic songs – Forgotten Eyes, Cattails, Shoulders, Orange – Brooklyn’s Big Thief are the band of the year. Votes from our critics were split across six different songs, but edging out in front was Not, a masterpiece of indie rock with a savage truth at its heart. In a world besieged by lies, we can no longer say what we are, only what we’re not. This comes out as a wry, poetic laundry list from Adrianne Lenker: “Not a ruse / Not heat / Not the fire lapping up the creek / Not food / That you eat.” The matter-bending guitar solo has the ragged glory of Neil Young’s finest. BBT


Rosalía and J Balvin – Con Altura

It’s hard to remember any self-made star having such a swift and well-deserved rise to the top as Rosalía, who already commands outsized influence given her relatively brief career to date (see: Camila Cabello’s second album). This year she released an embarrassment of brilliant one-off singles that show off her wide-ranging prowess, from uncompromising experimentation (A Palé and Aute Cuture) to nimble pop flexes such as Con Altura. It is completely addictive: the combined charisma of the Spanish star and J Balvin snaking around the blunt dembow stutter and a synth whirr that coos like a curious wood pigeon. LS

Rosal&#xed;a and J Balvin.
Rise …Rosalía and J Balvin. Photograph: Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella


Georgia – About Work the Dancefloor

One of the year’s warmest success stories: when Georgia released Started Out, the first single from her second album for indie Domino, at the end of 2018, it became a surprise Radio 1 hit. So did its follow-up, About Work the Dancefloor, prompting the label to push her album to 2020 to give the singles time to breathe. AWtD is a fine teaser for a record that is worth the wait, showing off Georgia’s newfound focus on songcraft and the depth of her references as a producer (the satisfyingly meaningless title is her tribute to the robotic proclamations of Detroit techno forefathers Cybotron). Lacing the juddering pulse of adrenaline with her vulnerable vocal delivery, AWtD puts Georgia in the big, Robyn-shaped pop leagues. LS


Clairo – Bags

The hot, wretched sickness of young love is rendered so acutely here by 21-year-old US indie-pop star Clairo. There’s a sullen black humour as she war-games the worst thing that could happen – her lover walking out with their bags – as a way to edge away from the erotic terror of the best thing happening. “Can you see me using everything to hold back?” she frets, holding nothing back. The backing, an idle but quietly feverish patter of garage rock, also tries to play it cool but can’t quite manage it, its main instrumental melody searching up and down for a foothold. BBT


Richard Dawson – Jogging

This was the Newcastle outsider folk artist’s poppiest moment by far – and also, in a catalogue full of tender humanity, his most powerfully humane. He voices someone “struggling with anxiety”, who is freaked out by a tutting checkout girl and thinks a busker is using Wonderwall to swear at them. Racist violence is close at hand. But jogging – represented here by a rolling beat reminiscent of, appropriately, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill – keeps them going. The dogged, synth-laden climax is a triumphant affirmation of the human spirit through personal and social collapse. BBT


Vampire Weekend – Harmony Hall

The east coast sibling to Lana Del Rey’s The Greatest: how did we get here, with antisemitism resurgent and “wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified”, Ezra Koenig asks? As with Del Rey’s valedictory ballad, he avoids obvious musical darkness and shoots for a more striking contrast by invoking the vivid, happy sounds of various 20th-century utopias: the pattering hand percussion calls back to hippies sitting in circles during the age of Aquarius; its sweet guitar filigree is straight out of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the show that taught empathy to a generation of American kids. The rising piano chatter sits halfway between house music and Bruce Hornsby, and by the time the shaky beat kicks in, it’s turned into the ecstasy-laced optimism of the Stone Roses. These eras rise and fall, Koenig suggests, offering his own song so it might be remembered as a gesture of hope and intellect during a particularly senseless one. LS


FKA twigs – Cellophane

You imagine FKA twigs was thinking of Blue-era Joni Mitchell when she named her comeback single. “At that period in my life, I had no personal defences,” Mitchell said years later. “I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defences there either.” Twigs’s Cellophane comes from the same place, where honesty becomes confrontation. “Didn’t I do it for you?” she asks an ex-lover, as glacial piano and a pocked beat suggest someone circling a precious museum exhibit and gesturing at its impressive facets: what kind of moron could disregard such beauty? But her contempt ebbs away, replaced by gasping desperation that reveals the damage done by their neglect. LS


Lizzo – Juice

It’s a misconception that tumultuous political times produce better music, but relative prosperity is certainly responsible for its fair share of drivel. The close of the Obama era was defined by the trifecta of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, Pharrell’s Happy and Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk, all mining retro good vibes that were addictive yet asinine. Juice is cut from the same cloth, with a warped VHS vibe that only adds to the throwback air. Yet whereas her predecessors served up toothless victory-lap optimism, Lizzo’s calling card single runs on defiance: she’s not looking to the mirror on the wall to affirm her excellence, but proclaiming it with a riot of radical food gags. She’s “the pudding in the proof”, “drippin’ so much sauce got a bitch looking like ragu”. LS


Billie Eilish – Bad Guy

Pop tends to stand up straight, but Bad Guy crouched. It was a delightfully malevolent presence in the charts this year, a shadow between the sprightly boasts of pop-rap and the howled emotion of pop ballads. The melody is the kind of thing Tim Burton would use to announce the arrival of an evil Victorian workhouse owner. Eilish, casting herself as a “might-seduce-your-dad type”, teases you right in your ear, so close you can hear every tiny creak and breath – and then, with that none-so-teenage “duh!”, she laughs at how much she’s freaked you out. The result is the most original pop song of the year. BBT


Charli XCX – Gone (feat Christine and the Queens)

The pressure of expectations is a topic that pop stars, jaded after their ascent, often end up visiting. But they are rarely this tortured. “Am I a smoke? Am I the sun? Who decides?” wonders Chris, poetically losing control of her own narrative; Charli, meanwhile, is “just now realising they don’t care”, and, chillingly, she could mean anyone. The glitched-up coda sees meaning dissolve altogether. But the brilliance of the echoing electro-funk backing offers a route out: you can always dance through a crisis. BBT


Sharon Van Etten – Seventeen

Growing up mostly means shedding naivety, getting less headstrong, sanding down the youthful volatility that just adds unnecessary friction to life. But what if we smooth off the wrong edges, betraying idealism and determination for the sake of an easier ride? On Seventeen, Sharon Van Etten beholds her younger self with equal measures tenderness, frustration and envy, while remaining well aware of how resistant that tempestuous girl would be to her concern; how withering she would be of what she has become. A Jersey girl herself, she borrows classic Springsteen-y triumph for this perfectly pitched epic powered by heroism and hubris. LS


Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (remix feat Billy Ray Cyrus)

Not only is it the most popular song of 2019, spending a record-breaking 19 consecutive weeks at No 1 in the US, plus 10 weeks in the UK Top 3, Old Town Road is also the most 2019 song of 2019. Its initial traction came from people miming to it on TikTok as part of the “yeehaw” viral craze for amusingly hackneyed cowboy shenanigans. It was then boosted by an identity-politics controversy after it was deemed not country enough for the country charts – the subsequent addition of the none-more-country Billy Ray Cyrus for the remix was a rebuttal of utter mic-drop magnificence.

Using the absurdist deadpan humour of meme culture weaponised its online popularity, while splicing rap and country earned it twice as many fans – and the line “ridin’ on my tractor / lean all in my bladder” did both at once. It would all have been for naught, though, were it not a completely brilliant song, top to bottom. Every part, from the drawled verses to the hearty chorus and taunting bridge, sounds amazing hollered from the back of a car, karaoke bar, or Shetland pony ride. Its biggest line may be a triple negative – “can’t nobody tell me nothing” – but Old Town Road’s success is nothing but positive. BBT

• Playlists compiled by Lowri Ellcock.