Who’s top of the bops?
Welcome back to the final part of My Top 50 Songs of 2019! If you’re just now joining us, then you’ve missed a heck of a countdown so far, sir/madam/other! But I won’t begrudge you for clicking back here (#50 – #31) and here (#30 – #11) to catch-up or refresh your memories! Today, we are covering the Top 10. And before we get started, I want to just mention that, in all my years of doing these lists, this was the tightest Top 10 I have ever organised. I’m talking millimetres separating every one of these entries. Every song which has managed to crack the upper echelon this year did so by providing me with a feeling or sensation that helped me get through 2019, not just because they all absolutely bang, and that’s what made even deciding the #1 so damn difficult. The artists should all be proud. Bring the noise.
10] The Chemical Brothers
The Chems’ ninth album is a political act of defiance. They are “mad as hell and [they] ain’t gonna take it no more,” they “know we can make it girl, if we just try,” they are witnessing “the eve of destruction.” It seems that the Brothers have also been worn down by the increasingly toxic and hateful breakdown of British society over the past four years. But their most defiant, most radical, and most affecting moment comes from the title track. “If you ever change your mind about leaving it all behind, remember: no geography. Me. You and me. Him and her and them too. I’ll take you along with me.” It’s a call for unity, for absconding from this poisoned and seemingly irredeemable world with those who matter closest to you in favour of a better, kinder one. One that everyone is welcome to join if they want to display kindness and love to those around them, shedding all prejudices and differences to once again see people as people. Accordingly, the song doesn’t drop. It instead lifts off, like a spaceship into the night, here for just long enough to pick up those passengers willing to make that change before blasting off in a wall of gorgeous airy sound.
09] Mannequin Pussy
Sometimes you can just tell from the opening three seconds that you’re listening to a Great Song, and that is an observation most applicable to “Drunk II,” the true standout on an album of nothing but standouts – seriously, folks, this record, holy shit. From that first crash in, and especially that guitar tone for the main riff which is just to die for, I knew I was completely in love with this song and the remaining 4:26 more than pays off that promise. This was my introduction to Marisa Dabice and, Jesus, what a fucking voice; the range from vulnerable despairing resignation during the chorus to sloshed self-pitying scream to the heavens at the end of each verse is astonishing. The melodies, the beastly drumming from Kaleen Reading, that outro solo, the refreshing honesty and mixed emotions in the lyricism detailing a bad but all too common reaction to a break-up… Look, I write these pieces partly so I can try and figure out how to communicate why I love certain songs so much, but sometimes I still just cannot find the words beyond pointing repeatedly at the thing and going “JUST FUCKING HEAR IT, IT’S JUST PERFECT!” This is one of those such times.
“The Dog/The Body”
The Center Won’t Hold
Much of The Center Won’t Hold is surprisingly tired and drained, as three of the most badass and iconic women in rock for so many people find themselves largely exhausted by the weight of everything around them and even more so by the expectation by those who rely on their strength to guide them through such tough times with righteous fury and inspiring anger. This is why “The Dog/The Body” is such a revelation, it makes an admission of resignation sound like the most cathartic and defiant thing in the world. With a lighters-in-the-air chorus that is easily the most classic rock the trio have ever done, whose strange triumph is all the more satisfying for succeeding the spare and objectified verses, the song is also where St. Vincent’s produced outline for the album as a whole most pays off. It’s those little additional touches which make the song – that alternating synthetic woodwind after the first chorus, the thunder with which Janet Weiss’s drums enter, that little semi-muted chord which hangs around after the last line as the track fades out. When surviving another day, even if doing so makes you feel like utter shit, is a revolutionary act itself.
07] Lana Del Rey
“Norman fucking Rockwell”
Norman Fucking Rockwell!
My first listen of NFR! occurred when I was at work where, on slower shifts, I like to use the opportunity to try out a few new albums for size, see how they feel. Hugely anticipated albums, I wait until I’m at home so’s I can focus all my attention on them without potential distraction. Albums in the classes underneath, I throw on at work seeing if they catch my attention whilst I’m ostensibly ‘busy’ and keeping it on a lowish volume to avoid disturbing Upstairs. Since I was not particularly into Lana Del Rey prior to NFR! (as detailed last year), she got the shop treatment. It took exactly two minutes and seven seconds before I stopped in my tracks and immediately cranked the stream up as high as I could possibly risk. “Goddamn, man child/You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two.” Yeah, the first verse version is inarguably more iconic, but it was the specificity in the second burn which caused me to sit up and take notice, with the melody and Jack Antonoff’s impeccable production pulling me out of my current reality and into theirs. By the time she hit those falsettos during the outro (and the flippin’ French horn), I was shook and fixated on nothing else for the next hour. Maybe I’ve been a Lana stan in waiting all along and I just needed the ultimate ‘fuck fuccbois’ song to realise that.
When “Tear” hits, when that wall of digitised noise blasts through the speakers and it’s like a giant flash of bright white light has burst through the window of your room and coated everything in its glow, I get legitimate chills. That melody which had spent the first minute and a half melancholically blipping away, soft and sweet and chilled like you’re just barely keeping it all together and falsely telling others that you’re “fine,” suddenly explodes into a widescreen torrent, as if the dam has burst and this flood of emotion just won’t stop spilling out. It feels like being confronted with everything that’s causing the world to fall apart all at once and the only response is just to kneel in emotional awe at its destructive power, all the more apparent when the distorted “USA!” chants from the album’s start make their return. The second time it happens, it’s like I’ve laid a hand on the giant screen projecting all of the world’s evils and my doing so has now shown me the beauty and the hope thriving within the chaos, a vital counterpoint of why we cannot give into despair. I feel so much when I hear this song. It’s extraordinary.
05] Billie Eilish
“bury a friend”
WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
The scariest thing about depression, and the thing that those who don’t deal with it on an ever-present daily basis will never fully understand, is just how natural and constant it can make thinking about death feel. Objectively, it is a terrifying and irrational thing, whether that be the concept of death itself or the idea of taking one’s own life, but – and this is admittedly based on personal experience; depression is a wide-ranging thing which resists easy generalisation – when that evil little voice is whispering to you or planting those thoughts within you every single day, it barely at all feels like anything untoward. This is why I connect so completely and find the chorus refrain to Eilish’s “bury a friend” so chilling, as she chants “I wanna end me” over and over in passionless monotone. The frankness in the bridge line “honestly I thought that I would be dead by now.” The paranoid “why aren’t you scared of me”s. Her song may specifically be about sleep paralysis, but she zeroes in on the constant micro psychological damages that depression can do, combined with FINNEAS’s production which captures the audio equivalent of a panic attack better than any other 2019 musician not named Girl Band. It’s important to stress that neither she nor the protagonist really are going to end themselves, and anyway that’s not even the point. The point is that the thought is there, normalised every day, and she, they and we know how terrifying it is.
Summer Girl – Single
It’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Unashamedly. And yet, after listening to “Summer Girl” what must be hundreds of times by this point, it also is nothing like “Walk on the Wild Side” and honestly the comparison is doing the song a disservice. When they say that greatness borrows but genius steals, this is what they’re talking about: cribbing from the past as a starting point and reworking and recontextualising it until the results end up as almost wholly their own thing. There’s such a comforting warmth to “Summer Girl” that I don’t get from Lou Reed’s masterpiece, it’s like I’m getting the soft-spoken pep talk from my best girl friend right in my ear that I so desperately need whenever I listen. That saxophone comes in at exactly the right moment, those “do-do-dos” in the post-chorus achieve exactly the playful ‘get off your ass and fight this thing, you’re not alone’ sensation they aim for, and that third verse… That third verse breaks me every time, when Danielle changes up the vocal melody to cut through the bullshit and culminating in “walk beside me, not behind me.” This is the best thing HAIM have ever done, far and away.
03] Carly Rae Jepsen
OH MY GOD, WHY DID I SPEND SO MUCH OF MY LIFE NOT LISTENING TO CARLY RAE JEPSEN?! I know that this admission is going to provoke the justifiable revocation of my Gay Card, but I just didn’t get the hype around Carly until this year. The stuff I had heard hadn’t set my world on fire, so I didn’t actively seek her out and the first few singles from Dedicated were just fine initially. And then “Julien” shimmered onto the disco-floor to glitter with such phenomenally-realised unrequited longing and it all, at long last, clicked. With the year now having ended, which included my hitting 25 and therefore becoming more anxiety-induced fixated on my life up to now, I genuinely believe this may be one of the best pop songs I have ever heard. I could listen to the way she delivers “Juuu-li-en!” in the chorus on a loop for hours at a time and, based on both my Spotify and iPod play counts for the year, it appears that I really did. That production is absolutely sublime, I pop every single time those steel pans come in at the end of each chorus run, the melody switch for every “I’m forever haunted by our… time.” Oh fuck, that beat she takes before saying “time” is actual genius! This is perfect. This is actual perfection. What the fuck is even the point of having pop radio, pop charts, pop fucking anything if this isn’t blaring out of them twenty-four-fucking-seven?!
Cuz I Love You
I hate myself. I have hated myself since at least when I was 12, this is not a new development and it’s something I came to terms with quite early on in this decade. I am probably never going to truly love myself for a consistent span of timr and will always pick apart at my own flaws – even whilst writing this very piece, I can’t stop focussing on and being incredibly bummed out by the fact that I’m getting an actual sticking-out gut for the first time in my life, which I have been told is a signifier that I’m getting my diabetes under control (this explanation has not helped any). This is deep-seated. But every single time I listen to “Soulmate,” and I mean every single time, for three minutes I feel like an absolute queen and I don’t completely hate myself. I sing, I clap along to that chorus build and badly attempt to dip at the beat accents, I dance (as Lydia and so many shop patrons will be able to testify seeing) without care or shame, I end up overcome with joy and positivity and even a modicum of self-love. For three minutes, I love myself, effortlessly. That is what this song does to me every. Single. Time. From the first run through of Cuz I Love You on day one, to right now at the end of a frustrating year. This is the quintessence of Lizzo and it’s what I needed to face the worst of 2019. This was the one.
01] Charly Bliss
As mentioned at the outset, this was the hardest to sequence Top 10 I have ever dealt with in my years making these lists. Any one of them could have taken the #1 slot. Hell, I could wake up tomorrow and perhaps feel like any one of the other songs which make up the Top 5 especially are equally as worthy of holding the crown; it really has been that close. I knew for a long while that these – “bury a friend,” “Summer Girl,” “Julien,” “Soulmate,” “Young Enough” – were going to be the final five, that these were what it was gonna come down to, and resigned myself to the fact that the eventual choice, rather than having a clear winner, was going to be decided by which felt most right in my gut when it came time to lock-in. Which of these most spoke to me over the past 12 months? What sensations do I want flooding back when I look back years from now on 2019? Who was I in 2019?
I love Charly Bliss. I don’t think that’s exactly a secret around these parts – full disclosure: I did interview the band for Set the Tape upon the release of Young Enough – but it bears repeating. I love Charly Bliss. And, even though I already thought they were outstanding prior to the release of their sophomore album, I had no idea that they had a song like “Young Enough” in them. Frankly, I don’t know how anybody has a song like “Young Enough” in them. The centrepiece on their incredible titular album is the best Rilo Kiley song Rilo Kiley never wrote. A five-minute 80s pop-rock ballad odyssey which just climbs and climbs and builds and builds in intensity and emotion with such rawness (contrasting with producer Joe Chiccarelli’s mirror-shine production) and poetic honesty that it guts me without fail on each and every play.
I could write entire paragraphs about every single one of the individual elements which make this song so wonderful. Dan Shure’s circular-descending bassline that sounds like the sinking in one’s stomach when you know something’s gone horribly wrong. Those rat-a-tat snare rolls Sam Hendricks constantly peppers in like the protagonist is tripping on their thoughts or shoelaces during the chorus. The ceaseless sharp stabs Spencer Fox emits from his guitar which keeps driving the song forward. That bit at 2:55 where the “I can’t protect you now if I couldn’t save you then” suddenly gets double-track distorted and it’s like a knife to the heart. But, more than anything else, it’s Eva Hendricks lyrics. How she so effectively communicates being young, immature, and completely failing to understand what a healthy relationship looks like, when you give yourself over to somebody so totally and so unhealthily that you don’t understand just how toxic the behaviour is for everybody involved. “I elected to drown in you.” “It’s just the way your hair hangs in your face makes me wanna die.” “You were still just a kid/You’re a beautiful boy/Crushing cigarettes just to prove a point.” Her delivery of “who am I if I can’t have you now?” is one of the most devastating musical moments of the decade, and it cuts all the deeper because I know what it’s like. I’ve romanticised that kind of mindset before. I’ve been in that position, on both sides, when I was young enough to believe it should hurt that much and it fucking hurts.
But no matter how deep the song cuts, it’s also a hopeful one. There’s a critical distance to it, a retrospective angle from somebody who has pulled themselves out of that mess and is trying to soldier on with those pieces ill-fittingly back together. It was a horrible experience, but they are still here, still surviving. And that’s why I went with “Young Enough” since it answers the question of who I was in 2019: I was the weight of my past mistakes, trying my best to pick up those pieces and soldiering on having grown from the good and the ill experiences, still surviving and that’s not nothing.
We did it, everyone! And came in shorter overall than last year’s series! High-fives all round! Thanks for reading, even if you (understandably) didn’t read them all. Here’s your customary Spotify playlist of all 50 entries starting from #50 and working down(/up?) to #1! Cheers to whatever the next decade may bring!
Callum Petch is young enough.