Sunday, December 15, 2019

100 SONGS FOR 2019

100 SONGS FOR 2019



Family is like the air we breathe
You can see that it’s inside you
All you have to do is bleed

Default Genders, “Black Pill Skyline”


Erik Olofsson Spak stayed home.

That one sentence is pretty much everything I know about him. Beyond that, even the most foundational details get fuzzy. He represents the oldest known branch of my family tree. One step beyond Erik waits the dark abyss of history. 

I can tell you that Erik’s home was Värmland, a province in west-central Sweden. But I can’t tell you exactly where in Värmland, and it’s a big place. It could have been Karlstad, a growing city on the shores of Vänern in the south. It could have been further north, into a wilderness dotted with nameless lakes. That’s a meaningful distinction, and we’re going to have to set it aside. Erik Olofsson Spak lived in Värmland. That much I know.

I can tell you that he was born sometime in the mid-1500s. Again, that’s just not enough detail. This is a pivotal point, when the whole of Swedish society shattered and was quickly pieced back together. Erik was born into a world unrecognizable to his grandparents, who would have been Catholic subjects of a pan-Scandinavian confederation known as the Kalmar Union, as their ancestors had been for centuries. In 1523, in the midst of a decades-long rebellion and in the early days of an all-out war, Gustav Vasa ascended to the Swedish throne. A year later, Sweden had won its independence. Four years later, the Reformation arrived, and within a decade Protestantism was the official state religion. Somewhere around then, as Swedish history paused to catch its breath, Erik was (likely) born, and then war once again engulfed the region. This was Erik’s reality. Seismic change was constant. The world was being born every day.

I can tell you that he was a fisherman, catching salmon in the service of the king. Which king? Well, again, it depends. If we’re talking about the second half of the sixteenth century, it could have been Gustav, at least at first. Or maybe Gustav’s son, Erik XIV, who conquered Estonia, made unsuccessful marriage proposals to at least four different women, stabbed a Swedish noble to death because he suspected him of treason, and went completely insane (not necessarily in that order). Or maybe Gustav’s other son, John III, who seized the throne from his brother and almost definitely murdered him by feeding him a bowl of poisoned pea soup. (Swedish history is nuts.) Through some or all of that, Erik Olofsson Spak caught fish. His was consistent, stable work, in stark contrast to the chaos that surrounded him.

I can tell you that he had a son named Laurentius, born somewhere around 1575. I don’t know if Laurentius had siblings. I don’t know if he was the oldest, the youngest, or somewhere in the middle. But things were different for Laurentius. Like his father, he was born into a rare time of peace. Unlike his father, though, he was born into a world that had solidified. Progress seemed to have gone as far as it could. It was no longer an era defined by great causes. Some dreams had been fulfilled: Sweden was secure in its independence. It was no longer necessary to take up arms for freedom. Protestantism was now a dominant force beyond challenge. There would be no more holy wars. Other dreams had been ruthlessly eradicated. It was a time of repression. The Swedish nobility crushed multiple peasant uprisings, and attempts to reestablish a foothold for Catholicism met a similar bloody end. Maybe you liked it, maybe you didn’t, but this was the world now. There would still be wars with Denmark, but they would be fought over resources and political control of the region. There would still be pockets of heathen to be converted, but no more glorious crusades. It was easy to envision a future that looked pretty much exactly like the present, and it must have been easy to feel the hopeless malaise that came with that kind of enforced stasis. The Swedes of Laurentius’ time dreamed smaller dreams than their forefathers. The world was finite and claustrophobic. Laurentius must have felt that.

Look, I don’t know anything about Laurentius Spak. I have created a backstory for him based on the one thing I do know. His father stayed home.

Laurentius Spak left.

In 1603, just short of his thirtieth birthday, Laurentius Spak moved from Värmland to an insignificant and far-flung dot on the map called Nottebäck, in Småland, in southern Sweden. Somehow, the son of a salmon fisherman was installed as priest of a local parish hundreds of miles away from his childhood home. It’s the kind of historical record-skip that seems like a misprint. 

So let’s talk about Småland, Laurentius’ new home. Throughout history, Småland has belonged to the past. Småland was the last place in Sweden to stop worshipping the old gods. In fact, in the twelfth century, well after the rest of Sweden had converted to Catholicism, the King of Norway led a crusade to convert the heathen Smålanders at the point of a sword.

That was ancient history even by the time Laurentius arrived, but the mindset of the locals hadn’t changed much. After converting to Catholicism against their will, the descendents of those converted Smålanders now decided they didn’t want to give it up, and fought all efforts at reformation. In 1542, one of those ill-fated peasant uprisings exploded into a full-on rebellion known as the Dacke War.  King Gustav called in the army and brutally crushed the rebels, which officially ended the war, but of course did nothing to change the hearts and minds of Småland. They would do what power required of them, but they would never fully assimilate.

Laurentius Spak moved to what he must have seen as a godless place. 

His descendants would live in Småland for the next three hundred years. With limited exceptions, they would live within a day’s walk of that church in Nottebäck.

Imagine Laurentius at home, pondering the enormity of the decision he had made. While it’s probably an exaggeration to say that he would never see his family again, it’s true that they were at least a week of hard travel away. Laurentius was more alone than he had ever been. He may have brought a wife and children with him. If so, they were now his world.

Laurentius was too old for a move like this. Almost thirty, he was middle aged by the standards of the day. He was well past the age where earlier generations of Swedish sons without a birthright would have piled into longships to pillage English coastal villages. He had a life in Värmland. He must have. But he left. Why?

I’m sure he had an answer. For those who asked, I’m sure he gave a concrete, practical explanation that was met with general understanding.

Maybe times were hard in Värmland. Maybe the Spak family had fallen into destitution. Laurentius certainly wouldn’t be the first to seek solace in the church at a time of personal financial ruin.

Maybe he was consumed by religious fervor. Maybe this was his calling. Maybe he would have gone anywhere for an opportunity to spread the gospel, and Småland was his best chance, maybe his only chance.

Maybe it was family drama, a bitter feud, a tragic death. 

Maybe he just hated salmon. 

Whatever it was, Laurentius had a reason. I’m sure of it. He would have answered. And that answer would have been true.

But I have to believe there was another answer, a feeling that Laurentius probably didn’t talk about very much. It’s unlikely a seventeenth-century Swede had the philosophical vocabulary to explain. Was he looking for a fresh start? Did he hope to learn something? Was he trying to figure out who he was? 

Was he hoping to find himself?

That’s stupid, right? This was a hardened Norseman, living in a world that demanded practicality, a world that met any attempts at introspection with steel and ice. But … was he?


I created a persona for Laurentius Spak because I see a lot of myself in him. I left, too. 

Like Laurentius, I had plenty of practical reasons. I had always wanted to live overseas. I wanted to move my career in a new direction. I wanted more travel opportunities. I wanted a lower cost of living. I wanted to make life choices that were not just variations on answering the question, “how can I make the most money right now?

But I also wondered what I would learn about myself in the process, what a shift like this would reveal about who I really was.

I thought it would be clarifying. I thought that by separating myself from a familiar, comfortable environment, I would be able to peel away the layers of identify that had built up over time. I worried that too much of my life was shaped by virtue of being a San Franciscan, a lawyer, a dreaded coastal elite, one more rich white tech idiot in a sea of rich white tech idiots. The world felt small. I did what I was supposed to do. My capacity for philosophical thought had atrophied. Did I believe in anything? Did I have a purpose? Did I have dreams? How come I felt so uncomfortable even thinking about questions like that?

I wanted something like a personal resume, a thirty-second elevator pitch, a compelling description of myself that I could confidently present to anyone who asked: Here is who I am. Here is what I am good at. Here is why you should be friends with me. Here is my value. I wanted to go back and share that resume with people from my old life, with my family, with everyone. “Look, I know there were some false starts along the way, but this is me, a finished product. Here, check it out. I put all my stuff in storage and I got on an airplane and I have euros in my wallet now and these profound truths just revealed themselves to me. Couldn’t have been easier. You should try it.” 

All of this made leaving an enticing proposition. It was an opportunity to revitalize my shrinking sense of self. I would change as much of myself as I could to find out what was unchangeable. That which remained would be who I was.


So it’s been a year. I’ve been looking for signs of enlightenment, proof that I have burned away the superficial, purified myself, uncovered the truths at the core of my being. I’ve been heightening the contradictions, playing up the new and unfamiliar, hoping to find proof that I am a different person, a better version of my San Francisco self. But every time I get too far down the trail of forced rebirth, there is a voice in my head that puts me back in my place. 

I live in a new city, in a new country, on a new continent! (You still live in a city where everyone looks just like you and speaks your language.)

I have a new job! (You still work at the same company, with the same stress and the same crippling need for approval extracting the same toll on your life outside of work.)

I got a new haircut! (Your haircut has been received so positively that it has become obvious that literally everyone hated your old haircut.)

I ride a bike everywhere! (Given your driving skills, that bike-only lifestyle probably should have been a requirement for your visa.)

Okay, umm … I am struggling with a new language? (You have a lot of work to do before you can even claim to be “struggling” with Dutch.)

I am eating new foods? (You are eating incredibly bland foods, and there is no good Mexican within five thousand miles.)

I own … rain pants? (Well, yeah, those are just practical.)

How else can I prove that I’ve changed, that I’m better now? How else can I show personal growth? What else is different? 


After nearly two thousand words on Swedish history and armchair psychology, you may have forgotten that the purpose of this essay is to introduce my favorite songs of the year, a personal tradition going on its eleventh year. While I’ve been setting up 2019 as a year of existential change, it’s not as if this is the first year I have compiled a list of songs as a backdrop to important life events. Since that week in December 2008 when I started writing about music as a way to avoid studying for exams, I have: graduated from law school, passed the bar, spent three months in South America, moved in with Ilana, started working, adopted a dog, gotten married, almost moved to Seattle, changed jobs, bought a condo, and, most importantly, finally watched Ilana win the Indian Summer Guac-Off. It seems unlikely that you could have inferred any of that from my previous songs of the year lists. In fact, I would be mortified if you could. (“Oh yeah, look at 2012, it’s all married guy music now.”) 

I’ve spent the year trying to square those two contradictory goals. I want you to see that Amsterdam has changed me, that I’m different, better. But I still don’t want to be limited, either as a human being or an anthropomorphized list of songs.

Is there anything about this year’s list that says anything about who I am in 2019? 

Is there anything about these songs that points to personal clarification, definition, understanding?

Well, nothing obvious, anyway. There are no songs in Dutch on the list. There is no EDM. There is nothing from Eurovision. I’ve discovered new artists, but there are a lot of familiar faces as well. Of the artists comprising my top ten, five have been represented on past lists, five are new. Last year it was four and six. In 2017, it was five and five. That seems to be my consistent rate of discovery. There are plenty of songs here that were recommended by Amsterdam friends, or that I love due to specific events and circumstances of my new life, but I don’t see a trend line here that I can point at and say “yes, this defines me now.” And again, I would consider my year in music to be a horrible failure if there were.

I have always tried to understand the world through music, and I often come to understand myself through making this list. It keeps me open to the world. It keeps me receptive to all that is new and different. It has slowly but surely demonstrated that I had been after the wrong thing in 2019: not an unshakeable sense of self but acceptance that identity is something more like a constellation. I will tell you with perfect conviction that my goal for 100 Songs for 2020 is a big swirling mess of music that made me feel something, songs that I never would have expected to like, inexplicable connections that demonstrate nothing beyond my willingness to remain open to the world around me.

One of my favorite books of 2019 was Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing, a book that, if there is any justice, will one day be treated like something akin to scripture. I’m going to give Odell the last word here because we are after the same thing: musical discovery as a proxy for self-discovery. 

Odell, like any thinking person, hates music algorithms, and the way they make the world small, focusing on one aspect of music that you once found pleasurable in an attempt to give you more music just like that. By comparison, Odell describes her delight at listening to a community radio station in Berkeley, whose random and varied playlist was much more likely to lead to the discovery of songs Odell truly loved:

My dad, a musician for much of his life, says that this is actually the definition of good music: music that “sneaks up on you” and changes you. And if we’re able to leave room for the encounters that will change us in ways we can’t yet see, we can also acknowledge that we are each a confluence of forces that exceed our own understanding. This explains why, when I hear a song I unexpectedly like, I sometimes feel like something I don’t know is talking to something else I don’t know, through me. For a person invested in a stable and bounded ego, this kind of acknowledgement would be a death wish. But personally, having given up on the idea of an atomic self, I find it to be the surest indicator that I’m alive.

By contrast, at its most successful, an algorithmic “honing in” would seem to incrementally entomb me as an ever-more stable image of what I like and why. It certainly makes sense from a business point of view. When the language of advertising and personal branding enjoins you to ‘be yourself,’ what it really means is ‘be more yourself,’ where yourself is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital.

This is exciting and terrifying at the same time. I don’t know if I’m entirely ready to follow the path from “enjoying a random new music discovery” to “giving up on the idea of an atomic self,” but every day I become more and more convinced that she is right. I have spent a significant portion of my life looking for “an ever-more stable image of what I like and why,” and honestly it would feel great to stop doing that. I don’t know if it took an international move to get me to a place where I could accept that, but maybe it did, and if so the move has already been a huge success. I can only hope Laurentius Spak found a similar peace.


My song of the year is “Not” by Big Thief. It’s about world-building through negation, and it is a distillation of Odell’s conception of a boundless self. Adrienne Lenker’s lyrics describe the world, both internal and external, as not this, not that, not everything, not anything. But she doesn’t mean that it is the opposite of those things, or the absence of those things. The world, in fact, is these things, must be these things, from the reality of a phone on the table to the reality of death. But, at the same time, the world cannot be defined this way. “Not” is a list of carefully chosen signifiers, each of which demands your attention. Consider the spine tattoo. Consider the crack in the plate. Consider the vacant wilderness. Now set that aside. It’s not that. That’s not enough. It’s more. You’re missing it. Because you’re trying to define it. The problem is trying to make any of it definitive. A weight it can’t support.

So here is a list of a hundred songs I loved in 2019. Read it like you read the lyrics to “Not,” and you’ll see a picture of who I was this year. Not Martha. Not Sharon Van Etten. Not Vampire Weekend. Not Jenny Lewis.

It’s a picture of me that explains nothing. It won’t explain why I left San Francisco, or why I feel closer to peace and happiness in Amsterdam, or even why these songs left such an impression on me while others didn’t. It won’t draw a line connecting me to Laurentius Spak or any other distant ancestor of mine who also felt an unshakable longing for someplace else. It won’t prove to you that I am an exceptionally good or interesting person, or even that I have particularly good taste in music.

But, I mean, it will probably come closer than anything else would.

100 Songs for 2019

1. Big Thief - “Not” 

I first became aware of this song when I heard Big Thief perform it at Primavera in Barcelona earlier this summer. It caught my ear, but I didn't recognize it. U.F.O.F., Big Thief's first of two 2019 albums, had come out earlier in the year, but I hadn't spent much time with it, so I assumed this must have been a track from that album. It wasn't. When it came out later in the year as the lead single from Two Hands, I recognized it from the show, and I wondered if maybe we had seen its debut performance.

No. Absolutely not. We had not seen one of its first fifty performances. The band has been playing it since 2017. Adrienne Lenker has played it in her solo sets. The world does not, in fact, revolve around me. 

I mention this because a little bit later I'm going to talk about the fact that we did get to see the world premiere of a different great song, and that fact might make me seem cool, but I want to assure you that is not the case.

2. Martha - “Mini Was A Preteen Arsonist” 

When Love Keeps Kicking came out, I tried to force myself to listen to it uninterrupted, start to finish, to get a sense of the album as a whole. I made it as far as this song, which I listened to four times in a row. I regret nothing. (Also, Mini is a real person, and there is a documentary about him.) 

Still the best band in the world.

3. Sharon Van Etten - “Seventeen” 

To be honest, I'm a little surprised we got a female Bruce Springsteen before we got a female Pope, female President, or female coach of a major men's sports team. (I had my money on Becky Hammon.)

4. Vampire Weekend - “Harmony Hall” 

When this came out, a few perceptive critics pointed out that the band was embracing jam band aesthetics, and most VW fans online took that as a vicious insult, like it meant the band should no longer be taken seriously, but I don't think anyone meant it like that. I know Steven Hyden didn't.

Me too! That sounds awesome! What is Ezra's favorite Dead show from the spring of '77? (Is it June 9 at Winterland? If not, why not?)

Vampire Weekend is a jam band now, and we should all be thrilled by that development. "Harmony Hall" is what would happen if String Cheese Incident had impeccable pop sensibilities. The VW live show is two and a half hours long, with multiple extended jams and an audience requests section. It's time to reclaim "jam band" from the trash heap of musical slurs!

(Also, Vampire Weekend plays "New Dorp. New York" in their live shows now. If they are going to play songs by other bands featuring Ezra on vocals, it is indefensible that they aren't playing "Warm Heart of Africa." Please help me get this message to the band.)

5. Jenny Lewis - “On The Line” 

I feel like I am the exact type of person who should have been a huge Rilo Kiley fan in the early 2000s, but for whatever reason it never happened. I am more than making up for it now, and I think I played On the Line more than any other record this year. But don't just take it from me, what about this guy on Twitter:


6. Sturgill Simpson - “Make Art Not Friends” 

Music appreciation always has a social element. I love this song, but what makes me happiest is how much Ilana loves it. We're in this together. (Which is funny, because this sentiment is the polar opposite of what "Make Art Not Friends" is about.)

7. Charli XCX - “Gone” (f/ Christine and the Queens) 

Hey, here it is: The song we saw performed live for the first time ever! It's so good!

8. Georgia - “About Work The Dancefloor” 

Prime example of the Ilana School of Pop Maximalism. Are you going to build up to that massive synth line, like maybe over a few minutes of simmering anticipation? Well, what if you just started with it? Okay, let's compromise - what if it kicked in six seconds into the song?

9. Dua Lipa - “Don’t Start Now” 

It's a perfect pop song, and if you want to enjoy it as that and not analyze it further, by all means do that. On the other hand, the production credits are fascinating. 

It was written by the same team who wrote "New Rules" (which they originally wrote for Little Mix!). (Also, side note: "New Rules" was the sixth single from Dua's debut album? How?!?) Emily Warren is a Dr. Luke protege, which may explain some of the trademark bass bounce here. She also has writing credits on most of the good Sigrid songs. She's also written for Rita Ora and Bebe Rexha, which means she's somehow written for three pop stars with Albanian parents (it's the new Sweden). Caroline Ailin is a Norwegian, which is important because every disco song this good has to have a Scandinavian involved in some capacity. And Ian Kirkpatrick produced "Bad Liar," which might not explain any of the sonics of "Don't Start Now," it's just a great song, too. I ... probably spend too much time researching these blurbs.

10. Rosalía - “Milionaria” 

There are a lot of songs on this list that sound like they were made with me in mind, catering to my exact musical interests. Like, I am not surprised that the new Martha album won me over on first listen. Of course it did. Then there are songs I hear for the first time, immediately think "wow, I love this," then think "wait ... why do I love this?" Because I wasn't in the market for a flamenco icon this year, but this song is undeniable. It's noisy and complicated and rhythmically confusing and it doesn't feel like all the pieces should fit together but they do.

11. Alex Lahey - “Welcome To The Black Parade” 

What do you do when you’re sad? When you're sitting at your desk just kinda bummed out, what do you know you can go to that will reliably cheer you up? Maybe it's GIF of a puppy tacking a baby, or a supercut of Jason Williams' ball-handling abilities. Both of these work for me, but for whatever reason my most consistent mood enhancers are unexpected (but sincere) cover songs. The gold standard is Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande doing "Don't Dream It's Over," but John Darnielle doing "The Sign" is also way up there.

This year, it was Alex Lahey and friends diving headfirst into My Chemical Romance for an Australian radio station. Look how much fun they're having! Look at G Flip on the cymbals! They obviously love this song and take it seriously, but at the same time they fully max out the camp factor (there are doo wop backing vocals) and the silliness inherent in anything this theatrical. There were days this year when I listened to this five times, or more. No song (cover or original) brought me more joy in 2019. I thought about putting it at #1, but I do not have the courage of my convictions. I still want people to take this list somewhat seriously. I am a coward.

12. Oso Oso - “The View” 

Basking in the Glow was my unexpected album of the year, a flawless monument to Jade Lilitri's songwriting prowess. Every song on the album starts out somewhere between "good" and "very good," then evolves into something else: a bridge, a second chorus, a swell of instrumentation, a different, better song than the one you thought you were getting. Good is never good enough. On "The View," Lilitri flips the switch on the bridge ("But not as much as the phone ringing"), transforming a fringe Top 100 song into a revelation. And then he performs that same trick nine more times.

13. Charly Bliss - “Young Enough”

It's hard to say since I'm coming up with these blurbs as I go, but I think distance and dislocation are going to be major themes this year. It's always random things that trigger it. I'll be walking Ginger and suddenly look at her and think, "They found you on the streets of Martinez, California! How are you living in Europe?!"

We saw Charly Bliss at Cinetol, a tiny venue in our neighborhood in Amsterdam. It was the first show of their European tour. It was their first time ever playing in Europe, period. It was a blast from the start, with Eva bouncing around in ridiculous clothes, the band covering "Mr. Brightside," and generally acting like a band playing their first-ever European show (which I mean as the highest possible compliment). At some point mid-show, the dislocation hit me. "You are four kids from Westport, Connecticut. I grew up in La Crescent, Minnesota. What are any of us doing here?" It's a dizzying feeling, but as I experience it more and more, I've come to love it.

14. Dude York - “Falling” 

You said "I got a 90's Volvo / And their whole discography"

15. Somos - “Iron Heel” 

This is my new favorite genre.

The tragedy of Somos is too much for me to summarize here, but the darkness and hope involved are both so perfectly, horribly 2019. Prison on a Hill is a time capsule that I hope we can all look back on in better days to come.

16. Highwomen - “Crowded Table” 

Impossible to pick a highlight from the consistently wonderful Highwomen album, but I'm going with one of the songs least likely to make you cry in public, because I would feel bad if you had a breakdown due to a song I recommended. (If you're into that kind of thing, I recommend ... most of the other songs.)

I'm also picking a Natalie Hemby song, which is surprising because she's the only member of the super-group that I was not previously familiar with (Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires being the other three). The degree of difficulty on this one was off the charts, as this is the kind of syrupy sentiment that you normally find on a crocheted throw pillow or something, but here it comes off as fresh and meaningful.

17. Slaughter Beach, Dog - “Good Ones” 

Two of the guys from Modern Baseball back with a side project that sounds ... a lot like Modern Baseball, which is fine with me (though Pitchfork called it "the furthest from MoBo he’s ever sounded," so I guess what do I know).

Into the void, a plea to make it through the night

My kind of man, always right

18. Taylor Swift - “Cruel Summer” 

I need to know what happened here. She had this song, just waiting, the perfect summer single (it has the word "summer" right there in the title!), and yet somehow she led with "ME!" and "You Need to Calm Down." She still hasn't released this as a single. I don't understand how Taylor can be so good at so many things (songwriting, self-promotion) and so bad at single selection. Is someone in her management team forcing her to do this? Couldn't she fire that person?

19. Carly Rae Jepsen - “Now That I Found You” 

This is the only song I can remember where my overwhelming reaction to hearing it for the first time wasn't excitement, or disappointment, or boredom, but relief. It's just that it had been a long time since E*MO*TION, and "Party for One" was fine but it wasn't anyone's favorite, and this new single was somehow tied up in the marketing for the new season of Queer Eye, which is fine I guess but it's always a bad sign when a song's primary purpose seems to be as background music for a trailer, and capitalism ruins everything, and ... what if she isn't good anymore?

Then to hear it for the first time and just ... exhale. It's good. Everything is going to be okay.

20. Better Oblivion Community Center - “Dominos” 

I go to a lot of concerts, and whenever I mention that, people always ask me about my favorites, which is somehow a much harder apples-to-oranges comparison than ranking songs. My favorite show of 2019 could be:
  • An intimate show with a high-energy band at the top of their game (like Charly Bliss, as we just discussed)
  • A massive festival highlight (like Christine & The Queens at Primavera)
  • A free-for-all of cathartic chaos (like PUP, we'll get to that one)
  • A dance party with all of my friends (like both Lizzo shows, we'll get to those, too)
Or a show that made me think differently about music I already loved, like Better Oblivion Community Center.

Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers so obviously love and respect each other's music, and it's a joy to watch in a live setting. The setlist is mostly BOCC songs, with a few Conor originals and a few Phoebe originals sprinkled in, but the fascinating part is that they sing each other's songs, and in doing so make it clear that they know exactly why the songs work. Conor turns "Funeral" into a Desaparecidos-style punk rager. Phoebe whispers through "Lime Tree." And then we get to the encore, which was my favorite ten minutes of live music in 2019.

Both Conor and Phoebe are masters of writing songs that build intensity without necessarily getting louder or faster. It's like they find a way to increase emotional density, which is a term I just made up and might not make sense to anyone. Their three encore songs are great examples of this. Phoebe's "Scott Street" (there's an entire podcast about the buildup on that one). Conor's "Easy / Lucky / Free" (if I had to pick a moment within this moment, it's Phoebe standing on the drum kit screaming "there is nothing!" over and over).

And then "Dominos," which builds twice, first at the end of the Conor section ("can't hear my own voice in the crowd") dropping to nothing and then into the Phoebe section ("I get edgy on dark streets"), only to get all the way back up for the coda ("if you're not feeling ready, there's always tomorrow"). For whatever reason, that last line made me more emotional than any other in 2019. There were a lot of times when I needed to hear that, and a lot of times when it almost reduced me to tears. The album came out in January, I'm typing this in December, and my eyes are blurry right now.

21. Default Genders - “Black Pill Skyline” (non-Spotify)

Short Version: The lyrics to this are so dense I feel like I need an annotated version. So far I have learned quite a bit about 2CT7ErowidThorium, and the writer from The Hairpin who did that profile on Chris Evans.

Long Version: Spotify launched in Sweden in 2008. It didn’t reach the US until 2011. Not that long ago. I remember a time before Spotify existed, when the idea of near-infinite streaming music seemed like science fiction, not to mention a violation of a bunch of IP laws. Back then, the online music world was a scattered mess, but it was fun, like an unauthorized scavenger hunt. Pirated albums, mash-ups, mislabeled MP3s, tomorrow your favorite blog could be posting a new Arcade Fire song or something some kid recorded in his dorm room and emailed to every music writer he knew. Either one could be great. I made my first 100 Songs list in 2008, and those songs came from everywhere. A bunch of them still aren't on Spotify. I collected those songs in a way that I just don't collect music anymore. 

This year, I got my new music almost exclusively from Spotify. The "almost" there is James Brooks and Default Genders (and occasionally checking to see if the second Alphabeat album is ever going to be available again).

Native Canadian, honorary Minnesotan, prolific Curious Cat-er, and the one-time Grimes romantic partner who's not a huge tool, Brooks has been making weird and fascinating music for years, as Elite Gymnastics, then Dead Girlfriends, then Default Genders, and he's been adamant that "You're never going to be able to do truly anti-establishment art on Spotify." It's a bold statement, but I think he might be right, and the fact that I am so willing to sell out artists in the name of convenience probably doesn't say great things about me. So, in an attempt to make things right and briefly recapture the spirit of independent music discovery, here's a quick personal top five for Brooks' various projects.
22. Nilufer Yanya - “In Your Head” 

Now that you mention it, why didn't The Strokes have a girl singer? Seems like a real missed opportunity there.

23. pronoun - “run” 

ShimmeringEuphoricCrystallineSo you're gonna run ...

24. HAIM - “Summer Girl” 

I'm always so impressed by minimalism done well. HAIM is the definition of a pop band, and I'm sure the temptation must have been to go bigger and bigger with every release (like CHVRCHES, who just make EDM-adjacent festival music now). To come back with this, as a lead single, takes guts. Probably the only time Lou Reed and Rostam will get a writing credit on the same song.

You walk beside me, not behind me

25. Menzingers - “Anna” 

It's time to start hyping 2020 concerts, so let's talk about Menzingers at Melkweg on February 3. We leave for holiday in Africa the next morning! Come see us off!

26. Operators - “Days” 

The story of Canadian indie rock since 2000 is basically three super-groups and all the related acts in their orbits:

Vancouver: New Pornographers (Destroyer, Neko Case, A.C. Newman, Immaculate Machine, Kathryn Calder)

Toronto: Broken Social Scene (Metric, Feist, Stars, Amy Millan, Jason Collett)

Montreal: Wolf Parade (Hot Hot HeatSunset RubdownHandsome FursDivine FitsOperators, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake)

That is an incredible amount of music made by a very small group of people. 

27. Ariana Grande - “bloodline” 

The sample at the beginning ("Because I'm trying to do the best I can / And they can't find something to satisfy me") is her grandmother talking about hearing aids. Seriously.

28. Tanya Tucker - “The Wheels of Laredo” 

I'll be honest, I'm not sure if I'd heard a Tanya Tucker song before this year. If I knew her name at all, it was mostly as a punchline in "Redneck Woman." I was more than happy to correct that omission in 2019. "The Wheels of Laredo" is a classic in the truest sense, timeless. I would absolutely believe this came out in, like, 1972.

(By comparison, Brandi Carlile wrote "The Wheels of Laredo," and a different version appears on the Highwomen album. That version has its own merits - it's bigger, more emotional, and Jason Isbell plays guitar on it! - but it is firmly grounded in 2019. Some people probably like it more because of that, and I can't fault them for it.)

29. Carlie Hanson - “Back in My Arms” 

Carlie Hanson is from Onalaska, Wisconsin. I just ... Carlie Hanson is from Onalaska, Wisconsin. I'm going to keep repeating it since I'm not sure how else to express just how impossible that is. I grew up five miles from Onalaska. My first job was in Onalaska (at sixteen, washed dishes at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant for $5.15/hour, not great). My junior prom date was from Onalaska (if I remember right, she spent a lot of time sitting around watching me play euchre for very low stakes at a sober post-prom party, I probably owe her an apology). The greatest performance of my mediocre basketball career took place in Onalaska (32 points in a JV game against Onalaska Luther in an empty gym, not as glamorous as you may think).

Those three data points paint a pretty accurate picture of life in Onalaska. Seventeen thousand people. Ninety-five percent white. Somehow "The Sunfish Capital of the World." Makes me claustrophobic just thinking about it.

But then here is Carlie Hanson. Nineteen years old, gay, edgy, interesting. I don't know how this happened. Carlie Hanson is a miracle.

Carlie Hanson is from Onlaska, Wisconsin, you guys. Carlie Hanson is from Onalaska, Wisconsin.

30. Stats - “Lose It” 

I love this song on its own merits, but I love it even more knowing that (a) the lead singer played guitar in Dua Lipa's touring band, and (b) the keyboard player is Phoebe Waller-Bridge's sister. Judging by the coverage this song received, I am legally obligated to compare it to both LCD Soundsystem and Talking Heads, which is maybe a little over the top, but mostly accurate.

31. Matt Beringer and Phoebe Bridgers - “Walking on a String” (Alt Version) 

I mean, if you're going to record two versions of a song, and one version has Phoebe Bridgers singing part of the song, and the other version has Phoebe Bridgers singing the entire song, I'm going with Door #2. No offense to Matt Beringer.

32. Bon Iver - “U (Man Like)” 

"Unexpectedly wonderful Bruce Hornsby cameo" is not a phrase I thought I would be writing in 2019, but here we are. It's the year we admit we kinda like the cheesiest Bon Iver songs best, and that "Beth/Rest" got a bum deal the first time around.

33. Alex Lahey - “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself” 

Imagine being able to play the saxophone like this and just not doing it at all on your debut album. Glad she let us in on the secret for album #2. What other skills do you think Alex Lahey has that we don't know about?

34. PUP - “Kids” 

I saw PUP (capitalized because I just learned that it's an acronym for Pathetic Use of Potential) at Melkweg earlier this year, and ... I have never been to a show like that before. Lead singer Stefan Babcock somehow crowd-surfed all the way through the audience and into the balcony:

I stood behind this dude's mohawk for awhile:

But more to the point, the distinction between band and audience broke down like no show I've ever been to. There was constant stage-diving, from start to finish. People would climb on stage, four or five at a time, and just hang out for a bit until the song hit a crescendo suitable for diving. It seemed like some people stage-dived every song.

At one point toward the end, the band announced that, for their European tour, they were accepting donations for a different charity in each city. For Amsterdam, it was Sea-Watch, a volunteer group who rescues refugees stranded in the Mediterranean Sea. While they were explaining why this particular charity meant a lot to them (every member of the band is the child of an immigrant), a guy got on stage and started talking to the guitar player. Turns out, randomly, the guy was organizing a fundraiser for Sea-Watch later that week, so the band gave him a microphone and let him talk about it for a minute. The crowd, unprompted, started chanting pro-refugee slogans.

I didn't get a chance to donate at the show, but let's fix that right now:

Open borders now. Open borders forever.

35. YBN Cordae - “RNP” (f/ Anderson .Paak)

I just want more fun, bouncy hip-hop like this. Cordae and .Paak seemed like a strange pairing to me, but it's perfect. The vibe reminds me of classics like "Callin' Out" by Lyrics Born, summertime music (which means it's getting harder to enjoy it right now in the dead of winter).

36. Fauness - “Sixteen” 

Released in 2018, but after I had finished my list, so this is the only song that I'm cheating and including this year. It's worth it.

A fun counterpoint to Sharon Van Etten’s “Seventeen,” in that it drops the "some good, some bad" lyrical nuance and just firmly takes the position that being a teenage girl is terrible. I get that now, but wow, imagine explaining to frustrated adolescent Aaron that it's actually a bad thing that all of the sudden everyone (friends, strangers, everyone) wants to have sex with you.

37. Craig Finn - “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight” 

We saw Craig perform a solo acoustic version of this back in 2018. It was the highlight of his set, and I was surprised when it didn't make the cut for I Need A New War, his 2019 full-length. It was finally released as a full-band single (with horns!) in October, and it was worth the wait.

I think the scene’s gonna fall apart pretty soon
I heard a song that I liked on the radio

38. Lil Nas X - “Old Town Road” 

Short Version: Not sure if this is a hot take or not, but I prefer the original to the Billy Ray Cyrus remix, which to my ear takes a sharp and unfortunate turn towards sounding like “Rock Star” by Nickelback. I have no real opinion on the many other remixes. 

Long Version: In my first year living abroad, there were so many unexpected moments that made me feel the distance. One of them turned out to be March Madness. I used to be one of the world's biggest college basketball fans. As a kid, I would pretend to be sick during the first two days of the NCAA tournament so I could stay home and watch fourteen straight hours of games. In college I dropped the pretense of pretending to be sick and just shut my entire life down for days at a time to immerse myself in the action. As I got older, my fanaticism slipped a little bit, but I still did my best to keep up. After moving to Amsterdam, though, I lost touch. I didn't even fill out a bracket. One day, toward the end of March, I sat down to catch up with this year's tournament, more for nostalgia's sake than anything else. I was surprised to learn that Texas Tech (Texas Tech!) was somehow in the championship game, and that they celebrated every win on the way there with a locker room dance party to this weird country-rap novelty song that had become a viral TikTok meme. Every clause in that sentence made me more confused than the one before it. I was so, so far from home.

That song, of course, was "Old Town Road." At the time, it seemed like the team was doing Lil Nas X a favor, providing him with a national platform he never could have achieved on his own. But then Texas Tech lost the championship game to Virginia, "Old Town Road" became, by some metrics, literally the most popular song of all time, and now it seems unlikely that Lil Nas X returns Darius Garland's phone calls.

39. HAIM - “Now I’m In It” 

Is HAIM the last band you could ever imagine writing a song about depression? And yet the results speak for themselves. There was a time I was really worried HAIM would be remembered as "those girls on a boat with Taylor Swift," that too-long time between their first and second albums when it seemed like they had given up art for celebrity, but by now I think it's undeniable they will be known first and foremost for their music, as it should be

40. Jai Paul - “Str8 Outta Mumbai” 

Pitchfork called it "a miracle of cultural synthesis," and that's not hyperbole. Stolen and leaked in 2013, Jai Paul's long-awaited debut finally got an official release six years later. Hoping for more in 2020.

41. Oso Oso - “Impossible Game” 

Sparkle-punk! There is a subsection of music I like so much that I lose all ability to describe it, and this year that is Oso Oso. Like I said earlier, Basking in the Glow is my favorite album of the year, and I don't know how to say anything beyond, "it's really good."

42. Martha - “Love Keeps Kicking” 

"If I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution." Emma Goldman didn't really say that, but it's a quote that gets attributed to her all the time, and there's no question she would have approved of the sentiment. Martha is a band after Emma's heart, both in terms of dancing and professed anarchism (and, I mean, they wrote a song about her). That balance is harder than it looks. Martha are one of the most aggressively political bands on the planet, and yet this song is about ... getting thrown out of a wedding reception? You don't have to be boring just because you believe a better world is possible.

43. Strange Ranger - “Leona” 

We're all out here just remembering the nineties as best we can. I think Ian Cohen nailed it: "Opener 'Leona' sees no reason 'Pictures of You,' 'Semi Charmed Life,' and 'Carry the Zero' couldn’t have coexisted on a Winamp playlist to commemorate a new crush or a fresh heartbreak."

If you have a strong, positive reaction to seeing the word "Winamp" in an album review, I guarantee you will like this song.

44. Neon Indian - “Toyota Man” 

Speaking of politics you can dance to, this song will never not make me smile. Is it confusing for bystanders in Amsterdam when I bike by singing "Todos somos Americanos!" I assume so. As of right now, as I sit here writing these blurbs on December 11, 2019, this is the song I have listened to the most in the last week, a trend which shows no signs of slowing down. 

No se dejen vencer, por esa pinche pared.

45. The 1975 - “People” 

I think I've written some version of the phrase "Matt Healy, Voice of a Generation" with varying degrees of sarcasm over the years to the point where I now just believe it with absolute sincerity. I know I just got done saying that protest music should be fun (twice!), but it's also pretty great when it's angry.

46. Worriers - “PWR CPLE”

My original plan was to have this list done by December 9, which means I would have had to come up with an excuse to include this song (released December 10) in 100 Songs for 2020. Instead, we all get to enjoy it now. I love Worriers so much, even though they have a song on their new album called "Chicago Style Pizza is Terrible," which, calm down Lauren.

Seriously though, I could not be more excited for that new album (You or Someone You Know, out March 6!). It was produced by John Agnello, who produced Boys and Girls in America, so I don't think it's a stretch to say that it's going to be the second-best album of all time (after, y'know, Boys and Girls in America).

(Finally, apologies to "Jessica WJ" by Cayucas, which slipped off the bottom of the list thanks to this late addition.)

47. pronoun - “sadie” 

Alyse Vellturo described her band as “Indie-emo-bedroom-rock-that-no-one-asked-for,” I guess because "Savage Garden-core" was a little too on the nose. Steven Hyden called it "Kate Bush, if the art-rock icon had been influenced by Bleed American," which is as random a combination of still-accurate reference points as you're likely to find. 

48. Hold Steady - “T-Shirt Tux”

Originally the b-side to last year's "Confusion in the Marketplace" single, "T-Shirt Tux" shows up again on this year's Thrashing Thru The Passion full length, which is just a much, much better album than even I, the world's biggest Hold Steady superfan, thought the band still had in them. I'd like to spend the rest of our time here just this verse:

A boy and a girl were draining their beers
He said "Stalin was a weatherman to start his career
And Johnny Cash was in the service when the news came through the wire
And it's weird how you feel when bad people die"
She said "Yeah, I guess, whatever
All your fun little facts are never going to keep us together"

But we have so many more songs to get through.

49. Pusha T - “Coming Home” (f/ Ms. Lauryn Hill) 

The protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard is an artist whose work becomes more and more abstract because he has mastered representational art and grown bored with it. This might be giving Kanye West too much credit, but ... do you think maybe he's just sick of himself? Like, does he just hate the artist he used to be?

Back in 2002, a pre-College Dropout Kanye mixtape leaked, including a song called "Coming Home." It's great, killer piano sample, no idea why it didn't make the proper album. Five years later, he reused those lyrics on the inexplicably Chris Martin-featuring "Homecoming" from Graduation, which comes off as the kind of bloodless song you do as a favor for your record label. 

Graduation was the last album with the classic Kanye soul sound, but of course he could still do it. In 2010 he recorded "See Me Now" with Beyonce, then left it off of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy because it didn't fit the sonic theme he was going for. He just left a Beyonce song on the cutting room floor! It's probably in my Kanye all-time top ten. But it wasn't what he wanted to do.

This year, apart from every other insane thing he did, Kanye produced another song called "Coming Home," for Pusha T. Critics mostly shrugged and called it a rehash of his prior work, which is true but it still blows my mind because that is what I want. Just do this! You can still do it! I know that's not how art works, but selfishly I think it would be great.

I guess what I'm saying is that I will never fully quit Kanye West.

50. Vampire Weekend - “Stranger” 

Or "Rich Man." Or "Jerusalem, New York, Berlin." Or "This Life." I just really liked Father of the Bride.

51. Jelly Boy - “Give Up and Gamble” 

Yes, I also miss the band Yuck.

One of the best and worst things about trying to follow music in 2019 is that practically every day you see a headline like this:

And you think, "oh, sure, Happyness' Benji Compston, the band and singer that I have definitely heard of, yes, got it." It's humbling. There is so much music out there that you will never know about, even in the specific micro-genres you try so hard to follow.

52. Woahnows - “Skin Peels” 

As in years past, you can find a lot of great music by just looking at which bands Martha is friends with. Tenderpunk Seal of Approval.

If you need a reason to leave
That makes two of us

53. White Reaper - “Might Be Right” 

I've been lucky enough to go to a lot of concerts over the years. I've seen pretty much all of my favorites. If you asked me which active bands I would most like to see that I've never seen before, it's kind of a weird list. I'd love to see pronoun. I'd love to see Petite Meller. I'd love to see Bad Moves. But I think the band at the top of that list might be White Reaper. Just listen to this song. Listen to "Judy French." Don't you think they would be incredible live?

I bring this up because White Reaper is coming to Amsterdam ... opening for Pearl Jam. Do I want to buy an expensive ticket to see White Reaper in an empty arena at like 7 PM? Maybe.

54. Carly Rae Jepsen - “Want You In My Room” 

It's good to have friends who can keep you sane. Ilana and I were in the San Francisco recently, complaining to two friends of ours that (a) we were trying to plan a holiday in Africa, but (b) Carly Rae Jepsen had just announced a European tour, with a stop in Amsterdam squarely in the middle of the vacation dates we were considering. Our friends, both CRJ fans, cut us off with a tone of disgust almost bordering on anger: "Are you insane? You've already seen her five times! Go to Africa!"

Thanks guys. Sorry, CRJ.

55. Lizzo - “Juice” 

Nine Unrelated Thoughts About Lizzo

(1) I saw Lizzo twice this year, the third and fourth times I've seen her, and they've gone (1) Opening for HAIM, (2) 3 PM set at a festival, (3) headlining a medium-sized venue, (4) headlining the second-biggest venue in town. If the trend continues I look forward to her performing at the Super Bowl halftime show next year.

(2) That said, it's bizarre that basically none of her success comes from the album she actually released in 2019. She hit #1 with "Truth Hurts," which originally came out in 2017, then #3 with "Good as Hell," which originally came out in 2016. Meanwhile, "Juice" peaked at 82. I look forward to her re-releasing 2013's "Batches and Cookies" next year. 

(3) Not sarcasm, that would actually be great. "Batches and Cookies" is awesome.

(4) And I don't think they meant it as a dig, but I can't get over the fact that the Grammys made clear that they were nominating Cuz I Love You (Deluxe) for Album of the Year. (Deluxe). "You know, the one you re-released with all the great old songs on it."

(5) Speaking of "Truth Hurts": Even though they are my sworn football enemies, I absolutely love that Green Bay pop radio bleeps the references to the Minnesota Vikings.

(6) Back to the live shows: I'm totally here for Lizzo's body positivity, but it's a tough sell in an Amsterdam crowd made up mostly of people who would be models if they lived anywhere else. Yelling "Where my thick girls at?" does not get the response here that it probably gets elsewhere.

(7) And another thing: One of the highlights of Lizzo's live show has always been the Big Girls, her plus-sized backup dancers. I don't know if they've been secretly replaced over time or if the intense cardio of dancing for 90 minutes every night has had an impact, but most of them are just the I Guess Not Dangerously Thin, But Still Pretty Thin Girls now. This is Big Girl erasure!

(8) Updating my "Coolest Living Minnesotans" list, she's still #2 behind Ilhan Omar, still comfortably ahead of, I don't know, Paul Westerberg maybe? Richard Dean Anderson? Who else do we have?

(9) Her cameo in Hustlers was distracting and unnecessary. That said, if I was her and I was presented with that opportunity, I absolutely would have done it, too.

56. Caroline Polachek - “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” 

Only six songs got an 8.0 or higher on The Singles Jukebox this year, and this was one of them. Deserved.

57. The National - “Rylan” 

Love that I Am Easy To Find includes a lot of female vocals. As one reviewer put it, it really "balances out their sad-boy energy."

58. Billie Eilish - “bad guy” 

All I ask of the younger generations is that they find new ways to be weird, and this qualifies. Duh.

59. Tacocat - “Hologram” 

Back in 2016, Tacocat recorded the theme song for a reboot of the Powerpuff Girls. They sound exactly like a band who should be recording the theme song for a reboot of the Powerpuff Girls. (And if you don't see that as a compliment, I feel bad for you.)

60. Charli XCX - “Blame It On Your Love” (f/ Lizzo) 

Interesting fact I just learned (you may already know this): "Blame It On Your Love" is not a remix of "Track 10" from 2017's Pop 2. In fact, the original version of "Blame It On Your Love" was recorded first, and "Track 10" is actually a remix of that. After the success of "Track 10," Charli reworked the unreleased track, added a Lizzo verse, and here we are.

"Track 10," by the way, is aging well for a song that is less than two years old. Pitchfork had it at 92 on its list of the 100 Best Songs of 2018 but somehow 85 on its list of the 200 Best Songs of the 2010s.

61. Rosie Tucker - “Lauren” 

Big year for Rosie: opened for both Phoebe Bridgers and Illuminati Hotties, reliably "put the kind of noise out / the queer kids with cool haircuts want to tell their moms about," really broke through in terms of name recognition:

Surprisingly had some competition for the year’s best song called “Lauren.” 

62. Bon Iver - “Faith” 

Pitchfork's Bon Iver profile was one of the most fascinating pieces of music writing I read in 2019. Justin Vernon found a way to be from the Midwest while not of the Midwest, in a way I never could. He drops acid and drives a Tesla, but he still lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I mean, I went to basketball camp in Eau Claire, Wisconsin for several years. You will not meet many people like Justin Vernon there. 

Even as I write this, I find myself getting confrontational, feeling a primal need to distance myself from the place I grew up. Vernon doesn't feel that. He built the world he wanted in the town where he was born, and now he has a recording studio so legendary that Kanye and Kendrick come to him, and yet he still writes songs about falling out of bass boats.

63. Sir Babygirl - “Pink Lite” 

The second paragraph of her Rolling Stone profile contains this quote:

“I’m not anti- or pro-Satanic,” Hogue says, giggling, by way of explanation. “Do your thing. I’m very neutral about Satanism.”
And just gets crazier from there.

64. Illuminati Hotties - “I Wanna Keep Your Dog” 

I don't know why this wasn't on Kiss Yr Frenemies, but Sarah Tudzin works in mysterious ways.

65. Ashley O - “On A Roll” 

I still haven't seen the Black Mirror episode, so I have no idea what this song is supposed to represent about our society or whatever. It's just really fun. Between this and "Old Town Road," a huge year for Trent Reznor despite not, as far as I can tell, actually releasing any new music.

66. Pet Shop Boys - “What Are We Going To Do About The Rich?” 

It is a life goal of mine to be this politically radical at age sixty-plus, so, nice job guys.

67. MUNA - “Stayaway” 

It's basically the post-breakup version of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, and yet still emotionally resonant. 

Nothing on 2019's Saves The World gets near the greatness of 2017's "I Know a Place," but it would be completely unfair to set the bar that high for anyone.

68. Better Oblivion Community Center - “Dylan Thomas” 

Back to back years including a song referencing the death of Dylan Thomas. I will be very surprised if this trend continues next year.

As a fan of both Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst, the Better Oblivion Community Center project was one of the best musical surprises of the year. The only valid criticism of the album is that, while boygenius created a new sound distinct from its three participants, BOCC sounds much more like Conor than Phoebe. Maybe not ideal, but certainly fine with me. Your mileage may vary.

69. Jenny Lewis - “Heads Gonna Roll” 

Somehow Ringo Starr plays drums on this?

70. Maggie Rogers - “Love You For a Long Time” 

Supposedly she wrote this the day before she wrote "Light On." What did you do today? What did you do yesterday?

(Random: The guy who produced this also produced "Truth Hurts")

71. Hatchie - “Her Own Heart” 

List of artists I have seen in three countries: (1) Robyn (2) Charli XCX (3) Hatchie. Though, in those three countries, we probably saw Hatchie play in front of less than five hundred people, total. Despite a really disappointing crowd in Amsterdam, she still put on a good show. 

"Stay With Me" was a random top five song for Singles Jukebox this year, but "Her Own Heart" was my favorite new track from Keepsake.

72. Strand Of Oaks - “Ruby” 

If you wanna dream, then dream with me

73. Wolf Parade - “Against the Day” 

I've written about this before2005 is my all-time favorite year for music, and in some ways that Class of 2005 will always define me. Apologies to the Queen Mary, Wolf Parade's debut album, came out in 2005, and I'll never forget how right it felt dropped into the middle of my musical world. I read a review at the time, which I can't find now (I thought it was Stylus, but nope), where the reviewer talked about how he would just open the folder of MP3s on his desktop and look at the file icons, how just the knowledge that he possessed these songs made him feel calm and secure. That sounds comically over-the-top now, but at the time I really felt like that. 

Wolf Parade has been through a lot since then (I talked about all of their side projects earlier in the Operators blurb), but they're still putting out new and interesting music. You know in movies when it slowly dawns on the main character that they are in love with their platonic friend? That always seemed like an unrealistic plot device to me. But here, in writing these blurbs, it has slowly dawned on me that Wolf Parade is one of my favorite bands of all time. I am honestly surprised to be writing that.

74. Christian Lee Hutson - “Northsiders” 

Finally answering the question, "What if Elliott Smith had a sense of humor?" Saw him open for Better Oblivion Community Center and I would have been content if he had just told stories and never actually played any music.

75. Sturgill Simpson - “Mercury In Retrograde” 

Two data points make a trend, so between this and "High Horse," I feel pretty confident in declaring that country-disco is now a thing.

76. Emarosa - “Givin’ Up” 

I had never heard of Emarosa before this year, but apparently they used to be an aggressive post-hardcore band and just decided they wanted to make a straight-ahead pop record. That turned out to be a great decision, and plus I bet it's just way more fun to play music like this. Apologies to "Sucker," but this is the best Jonas Brothers song of the year.

77. Laura Stevenson - “Dermatillomania” 

If you're wondering, it's a mental illness characterized by repeated picking at one's own skin. Do not Google it. How anyone can write a song about a topic like that but make it sound as carefree as this, I will never understand.

78. Sampa The Great - “Final Form” 

Zambia! (Kind of.) It was a big Zambia year for me (wow that is a weird phrase to write), kicked off by reading The Old Drift, an incredible novel that I cannot recommend highly enough. From there I started listening to Zamrock, learned about the Zambian space program, and eventually found my way to Sampa the Great.

79. Charly Bliss - “Capacity” 

Completely random thing I learned while researching this list: According to, three artists have covered "3 Small Words" from the Josie and the Pussycats movie in concert: Jeff Rosenstock, Tacocat, and Charly Bliss. So yes, you have to be a really good band to cover that song. And, since I used up all the thoughts I had about Charly Bliss in the "Young Enough" blurb, let's go way too deep on a modern classic.

"3 Small Words" has three credited songwriters: Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, who also directed the movie (and Can't Hardly Wait(!)), along with music industry veteran Dave Gibbs, who went on to play bass in Street Sweeper Social Club, the supergroup formed by Tom Morello and everyone's favorite communist, Boots Riley. (That sounded sarcastic: Boots Riley is in fact my favorite communist. He should be yours, too.) So there is at least a through-line from Boots Riley to Josie co-star Rosario Dawson to her boyfriend Cory Booker. We can radicalize him!

80. Belle and Sebastian - “Sister Buddha” 

Just a perfect Stone Roses guitar line, and, since this is a safe space, I want to admit to all of you that I missed a Stone Roses question at music trivia a few weeks ago and I will never forgive myself. 

Meanwhile, and more pertinent to the task at hand, Belle and Sebastian have been making varied and wonderful music for fully twenty-five years now and I still know people who will always refer to them as "old sad bastard music" because of High Fidelity. This is a good song that wouldn't even sniff their all-time top twenty or so. What a career.

81. Spielbergs - “Five On It” 

Norway's finest (to be fair, a title they share with Sløtface) return with a note-perfect indie rock song that sadly has no connection to the Luniz classic

82. Ex Hex - “Rainbow Shiner” 

On the one hand, all-female punk band from DC with impeccable pedigree and street cred. On the other hand, I have read multiple articles about them discussing how much they love a very specific amplifier designed by the guitar player from the band Boston and frequently used by Def Leppard. If you can conceptualize how both of those facts could be true about the same band, you probably have a good idea of what Ex Hex sounds like.

83. Sauti Sol - “Extravaganza” 

I got to travel quite a bit for work this year, and for the most part it was great (even if you're in an office for most of the time, it's just more fun to go to Madrid and Dubai than Boston and Pittsburgh). I try to make an effort to check in on local music, but it doesn't translate into new discoveries too often. (For instance, this song was playing when I got into a minor car accident in Cairo. I like it, but it did not make the list.)

An unexpected highlight of my travels was Nairobi, which now joins Asheville, North Carolina, on the list of random places I like so much that Ilana worries I will one day get serious about moving there. When I asked anyone in the office what Kenyan pop music I should listen to, the answer was unanimously "Sauti Sol." Their big hit at the time was "Short N Sweet," and it's worth your time (the video is a lot of fun), but it was their follow-up single "Extravaganza" that really caught my attention.

84. King Princess - “Hit The Back” 

Do you ever want someone to explain your own brain function to you? Like, why am I so fascinated by the random voices yelling in the background of this song? Inexplicable but compelling, the song just wouldn't be as interesting without that layer. 

(I'm confident that a lot of other people are going to talk about the specific sexual elements of this song for their lists, so I'm just going to pass on that.)

85. Clairo - “Closer To You” 

I'm a little surprised we're still talking about authenticity in 2019. I honestly don't care if Clairo is actually an industry plant, or if she really is just a girl who got famous posting DIY videos to YouTube. I just want good songs, and Clairo has a bunch of good songs.

86. Strange Ranger - “Living Free” 

As Stereogum correctly described it, "sounds like fireworks going off in slow motion."

87. Craig Finn - “Something To Hope For” 

Circumventing my Two Songs Per Artist rule by including one Hold Steady song and two Craig Finn solo songs. I regret nothing. 2019's I Need A New War is just relentlessly depressing, and I go back and forth on whether the hook of this song ("I wanna give you something to hope for") is actually expressing optimism or conceding defeat ("I would like to give you something to hope for, but I just can't. It's impossible."). I know Craig's entire project could be summed up as hope in the face of darkness, but I just don't know if the lyrics support that.

88. Mallrat - “Nobody’s Home” 

This marks four consecutive years with a Mallrat song on my year-end list, or just under twenty percent of the years that Grace Shaw has been alive. A significant drop in the number of Aussies on the list this year, but Mallrat continues to carry the torch.

89. Priests - “The Seduction of Kansas” 

One of the underrated benefits of making a list like this is that it really puts into perspective exactly how long a year is. We moved to Amsterdam on January 5. This song came out January 9. And this song feels like it is twenty-five years old. It is impossible that so much has happened this year.

As for the song itself, it is the best St. Vincent impression of the year. Without doing any research, I'm going to say it's also the best rock song to ever reference both the Koch brothers and Applebee's.

90. Pinegrove - “Phase” 

Easily the year's best song about arranging your bookshelf by color. Relatable!

91. Chromatics - “Time Rider” 

Because of this song, I learned that there is another music writer with the last name Bergstrom, working at Pop Matters, I would have been upset, but he kinda nails this one:

92. Hand Habits - “can’t calm down” 

It looks like "placeholder" is going to be the Hand Habits song on most other year end lists, but "can't calm down" resonated with me on a much deeper level. Frontwoman Meg Duffy previously played guitar on War on Drugs records, and there's an element of that sound here, but more delicate, more intricate. It's a soothing song, but the chorus prominently features the line "What if I can't calm down?", so I'm not sure if this song is supposed to make you feel better or not.

93. Mannequin Pussy - “Who You Are” 

Now that Diarrhea Planet broke up, Mannequin Pussy takes the title of "Band I Really Like But Feel Uncomfortable Talking About In Mixed Company."

94. Jamila Woods - “BALDWIN” 

Short Version: This is the second-highest scoring song of the year on The Singles Jukebox, and the horns alone are worth the price of admission. 

Long Version: A pretty concise definition of privilege is that I get to decide whether or not I want to pay attention to the kinds of massive, systemic social problems that are a matter of life and death for so many others. On some level, obliviousness is a survival mechanism, albeit a selfish one. There is really no upside to being aware of every tragedy in the world at all times, but it leads to this weird disconnect where we get a week of stories about the treatment of the Uyghurs in China, or the burning Amazon, or the Zika virus, then we lose interest, then months later we think back like "did we solve that?" when no, we absolutely did not. In getting ready to move to Amsterdam, I remember consciously thinking that it would be nice to take a break from the seemingly incurable evils of America, from our broken health care system to a homeless crisis in some of the richest cities in the history of the world to the all-pervasive racism. Just ... a little break. It makes me feel dirty to say it, but it's true. Do I really need to know about every single police shooting? Maybe not, but I think it's important to never check out completely, and oh man Jamila Woods will not allow you to check out: 

Somebody's daddy always laid out on the street and for what?
We on the street and for what?
Your precious lethal fear
Your precious lethal fear

You could change a hood just by showing your face
Condo climbing high, now the block is erased
You clutch on your purse, now you crossing the street
Brother caught your eye, now you callin' police
It's a casual violence in your speech and your silence
It's unnatural science, you too comfortable lying

That hurts. It's supposed to hurt. I hope it always does, as long as that fear keeps taking lives.

95.  Destroyer - “Crimson Tide” 

I've always loved Dan Bejar's contributions to the New Pornographers (his weirdness is the perfect counterweight to Carl Newman's pop perfection), but it's taken me awhile to come around on Destroyer, where Bejar is left to his own devices. "Crimson Tide" is great, though, and in a year where nothing from the New Pornographers' album (In the Morse Code of Brake Lights) made the list (despite the fact that Spotify informs me they were my artist of the decade), I'm glad Bejar is here to carry the flag for the group.

(This is totally unrelated, but it's a story I just remembered and I want to tell it here. In college, I worked at a Barnes and Noble, and from time to time I would help out in the receiving department, which was nice because you didn't have to talk to customers, you could be very hungover without getting in trouble, and you just got to listen to music while you unpacked boxes. The other guy who worked back there had really interesting, eclectic taste in music, and whenever I got control of the stereo, I was always hoping to impress him. I remember being really into Modest Mouse at that time. Anyway, one day I put on the New Pornographers, and we had this exchange:

HIM: Who is this?
ME: New Pornographers.
HIM: Whoa, that is an awesome band name! Nice!
ME (smiling): I know, right?

I was so proud of myself. Later, I saw him over by the stereo, looking at the CD case with a confused expression:

HIM: Oh, New Pornographers, okay. I thought you said they were called "Nuke The Warmongers."

Which, I have to admit, would be a much better band name.)

96. ORKID - “Lay Low” 

A throwback to the days when this list was just obscure Swedish alt-pop acts who were never heard from again. If your song's sales pitch is 'basically the drums from 'Grindin''," I don't really need to hear anything else.

97. The Boyboy West Coast - “U Was At The Club (Bottoms Up)” 

Meaghan Garvey already said everything there is to say about this song, I just want to add that I love the backing vocal ad-libs so much because (a) they are way too loud, and (b) it sounds like he has never heard the song before, is reacting to it in real time, and is kind of pleasantly surprised at how well things are going.

Dropped about twenty spots for the hacky racism of the "eyes lookin' Chinese" line. C'mon, Boyboy, you're better than that.

98. Francis and the Lights - “Take Me To The Light” 

Justin Vernon says he "can't kick it with Kanye anymore," since, you know, *literally everything Kanye has done in the last three years.* But somehow the Kanye/Justin/Francis dream team managed to reunite for an update on 2017's Ilana Song of the Year ("Friends"). And you can read the lyrics to "Take Me To The Light" to be about their relationship if you want to, but it's probably better if you don't.

99. Kaiser Chiefs - “Record Collection” 

On the one hand, it's old men complaining about the internet (now, as always, everyone older than me qualifies as "old," and lead singer Ricky Wilson is 41), which should be an automatic veto. On the other hand, it's a fun indie rock song, and in 2019 that is a rapidly dwindling resource, so we should appreciate what we have.

100. Laura Stevenson - “Jesus, Etc.” (non-Spotify)

They say smell is the sense tied closest to memory, but I just can’t believe any smell could take me back to 2002 faster and more viscerally than Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. (If there was such a smell, it would be something like “Miller High Life vomited into a dirty slush puddle in a parking lot,” so that’s probably for the best.) This is the sound of coming back from Oxford, trying to reintegrate myself into college life in Minnesota, turning twenty-one and, as referenced in the prior parenthetical, being either drunk or hungover pretty much all the time. Sitting on a second-hand couch in someone's living room trying to decipher the lyrics to "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart." This record is ingrained in my soul.

So you would think that any artist attempting to cover it would be facing an uphill battle with me, and that's probably true. I was naturally going to be critical of All of God's Money, a YHF covers album sold to raise money for a Chicago AIDS charity. But in Laura Stevenson's hands, this song is transformed. She takes an already light song and makes it weightless, stretching out "voices whiiiiiiine" as the words ascend into the heavens. It's the same song, but it's not. It triggers those memories, but it sounds new at the same time.

Bonus Lists!

Since I didn't do Outtakes this year, here are twenty-five more good songs that didn't make the cut for 100 Songs for 2019, in alphabetical order (limited to artists not already represented on the list):

100 gecs - "Money Machine"

Africa Express - Johannesburg"
BANKS - "Contaminated"
beabadoobee - "I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus"
Beach Slang - "AAA"
Cartalk - "Noonday Devil"
CHAI - "I'm Me"
Cher Lloyd - "M.I.A."
Dogleg - "Fox"
Drive-By Truckers - "Armageddon's Back In Town"
Generationals - "I Turned My Back on the Written Word"
Koffee - "Rapture"
New Pornographers - "Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile"
Normani - "Motivation"
Petite Meller - "The Way I Want"
Prince Daddy & the Hyena - "Lauren (Track 2)"
SACRED PAWS - "Almost It"
Sambassadeur - "Foot of Afrikka"
Sheer Mag - "Blood From A Stone"
Soccer Mommy - "yellow is the color of her eyes"
Steve Adamyk Band - "Kinda Ill"
Sudan Archives - "Confessions"
Tegan and Sara - "Don't Believe The Things They Tell You (They Lie)"
TORRES - "Good Scare"
ViVii - "And Tragic"

And finally, my Top 20 Albums of the Year, because I have a serious and untreated addiction to list-making:

1. Oso Oso - Basking In The Glow
2. Jenny Lewis - On The Line
3. Martha - Love Keeps Kicking
4. Vampire Weekend - Father Of The Bride
5. The Highwomen - The Highwomen
6. Better Oblivion Community Center - Better Oblivion Community Center
7. Charly Bliss - Young Enough
8. Sturgill Simpson - SOUND & FURY
9. Bon Iver - i,i
10. Strange Ranger - Remembering The Rockets
11. Somos - Prison On A Hill
12. pronoun - i'll show you stronger
13. Charli XCX - Charli
14. PUP - Morbid Stuff
15. Maggie Rogers - Heard It In A Past Life
16. Big Thief - Two Hands
17. The Hold Steady - Thrashing Thru The Passion
18. Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated
19. Hatchie - Keepsake
20. White Reaper - You Deserve Love

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