Illustration: Belinda Kou for NPR
Illustration: Belinda Kou for NPR
This list was made by writers, editors and producers at NPR Music operating under two rules: Songs had to be released during 2019 and no lead artist was allowed to appear on both this list and our list of the 25 Best Albums of 2019. You can find the rest of our picks for the best music of 2019 here.
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Sech feat. Darell
This year, Sech led mainstream reggaeton's return to its Afro-Panamanian roots. While the English-language media is still catching up to Bad Bunny and J Balvin, the 26-year-old rapper from Río Abajo and his song of the summer "Otro Trago" have racked up 398 million views on YouTube and 31 straight weeks on the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart. After this decade's long whitewashing of reggaeton within the Latin industry, "Otro Trago" is built like an old reggaeton romantico on Sech's liquid voice (proven by live sessions) and a simple, vindicating chorus. Though the July remix with giants like Ozuna, Anuel A, and Nicky Jam also blew up, it has yet to surpass the original by a long shot, proof positive that Sech succeeds on his own merit and urbano built on authenticity still reigns. —Stefanie Fernández
Joe Troop, the leader of Che Apalache, is a North Carolina native and a bluegrass musician whose wanderlust led him to Argentina, where he formed the band with three banjo players. The resulting bilingual bluegrass is a reminder that the American south and its musical traditions has always been in dialogue with Latin and South American immigrants. It feels like a tidy narrative. But "The Dreamer" from the band's debut album — produced by Bela Fleck — is so moving and relevant and flat out useful for the times we live in that it upends any preconceptions about what bluegrass can contain. It's a heart wrenching story of an immigrant family, separated and fearful. Its narrative is grand, inspired by the story of a real DACA recipient-turned-activist woven together with allusions to the biblical Moses, and ultimately challenges us all to face what these family separations mean: "Is there room for love beneath the sun after all is said and done?" —Lauren Onkey
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You have to start with the video: DaBaby the mailman stomping down the street in his turquoise, government-provided vest and matching Air Max 97s, cigar in mouth, tearing open packages and swiping MacBooks and Rolexes. Then there's the dance: arms out, hands clenched, revving up an imaginary motorcycle, feet bumbling to the beat — the march of the function-crashing penguins. And then finally, the song itself, whose components burrowed into the brains of everyone who cared even a little about rap in 2019: that first "HAH," the tongue-twisted rapping about Internet gangsters and turning people into convertibles that had no end or beginning (but you knew when the chorus was), that massive, modulating, glowing bassline. Pooh was a fool for this one. —Mano Sundaresan
"A Moment For Jason Molina"
Anyone who listens to music can attest to its healing powers, but this song proves that those who compose the music can also reap the same benefits. The songs of bluesy folk singer Jason Molina, who died in 2013 at age 39, cradled composer Caleb Burhans through personal unrest. This 9-minute homage, performed by guitarist Simon Jermyn, is a potent musical balm for the broken and hopeful, and a beautiful debt repaid. Its gently unfolding preamble gives way to a mesmerizing groove that can sweep listeners away to a place of restorative reflection. —Tom Huizenga
"Take The Journey"
There's more than one hook in Molly Tuttle's "Take the Journey." The first arrives right away, an acoustic guitar figure whose springing syncopation she achieved by applying the frailing technique of old-time banjo to her instrument. As a decorated flatpicker, she's known for such innovation, and it serves as a springboard for her sparkling songwriting. Her bluesy, Appalachian-tinged melody moves in snug unison with her playing, and she sings the chorus with delicate resolve. Its plain, poetic lyrics urge an openness and curiosity that's exactly in line with who she is as an artist. —Jewly Hight
Islam Chipsy & EEK
One of the most jubilant acts to emerge from Egypt's electro-shaabi scene is the instrumental group EEK: two drummers and frontman Islam Chipsy (a.k.a. Islam Said), a keyboard wizard of the highest order. The band's stage magic was honed at wedding parties and played over battered PAs on the streets of Cairo, with tunes that shift kaleidoscopically between percussive muscle and sinuous, psychedelic melody. The band's 2019 EP Kahraman is a solid introduction to their aesthetic, but the track "El Daynasour" is perfection realized: insistent, hip-shaking drumbeats overlaid with Chipsy's keyboard pyrotechnics. —Anastasia Tsioulcas
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21 Savage feat. J. Cole
Yes, the premise of 21 Savage's biggest single to date is how wealth comes with no shortage of problems, but it is also about how no amount of money or fame can remove a target from your back. A pitched-down doo wop sample adds a sorrowful air to each beat of the 808 drum as he repeatedly intones the title, as if to cleanse himself of all the excess in his life. The Atlanta rapper's greatest skill has always been mood — the ability to make us feel life through his eyes, because he knows most of us will never have the ability to see it. Two days after the release of the video for "a lot," which combined all three of his verses from his album released in the last days of 2018 with a guest verse by J. Cole, 21 Savage was detained by ICE on charges that his visa from his native U.K. had expired. Some speculated that the timing wasn't a coincidence — if you listen to his final verse from that version of the song you'll understand why. —Zoë Jones
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In an age where overproduction has become the hallmark of too much radio R&B, Summer Walker has the soul of a singer-songwriter better suited for a stool and guitar. Before releasing her chart-topping major-label debut (Over It) in October, she showcased her true essence in January with the release of a stripped-down, four-song EP titled CLEAR. "Wasted" — a standout song from that session, captured on an accompanying video — pours her brown-liquor vocals on top of live instrumentation while she likens her heart's addiction to being drunk off the wrong kind of love. "Wanna get wasted with you / Tell me what's good for me but I don't care," she sings on the hook. It's a slow burner that finds her embracing the pain sure to follow her reckless pursuit of pleasure. Summer's never sounded darker. —Rodney Carmichael
It begins with a dog. In Pat Goodwin's telling, the title of this song refers to a canine, so named for his habit of digging endlessly with obsessive intensity. The name became shorthand for a spiraling state, the kind of existential anguish that becomes inescapable. Which is why, when Alex Menne howls, "That's why I hate you," each delivery is more devastating than the one that precedes it. Talking in circles, it's the sound of working yourself out of the cycle, recognizing and wrestling with what you can't seem to let go.
When the moment comes again, there's a shift: "That's why I love you." Proclaimed with the same forcefulness and fervor, it's emboldened and open-hearted. With its exploratory spirit and crackling kinetic energy, "Digger" sums up the central themes of Great Grandpa's album Four of Arrows – seeking options in the face of inevitability, staring down fate and forging forward, believing that respite can be a kind of resolution – but more than that, it's the sound of a band coming into its own, choosing to explore new terrain in spite of uncertainty. —Lyndsey McKenna
"So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings"
With her band Chairlift, Caroline Polachek spent a decade warping the lines between indie rock and the Top 40. As a solo artist she leans in closer, putting cracks in the smooth faces of pop femininity and folk confessionalism. "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings" turns thirst for an absent lover into an unshakable hook, but threads the words through such odd meters that singing along takes practice. Silky vocal runs get trashed with fuzz, Auto-Tuned into a robot's idea of a guitar solo. Even the highly rewatchable music video scrambles its sexiness by literally sending the artist to hell. Call it Magic Eye for the ears, a love poem read through a kaleidoscope. As one astute YouTube commenter put it, "She sings in cursive." —Daoud Tyler-Ameen
Carly Rae Jepsen
At the heart of the cult of Carly Rae Jepsen is excess. It's not reflected in sales figures or chart hits so much as in Jepsen's very ethos: songs that overindulge in romantic ambivalence, kick off with an extended saxophone solo or contain a singalong chorus that repeats the word "really" six times in a row. In another feat of doing the most, Jepsen claims to have written hundreds of songs that she narrowed down to this year's Dedicated. So when, in that album's bubbly, yearning standout, she sighs "is this too much?" over a perfectly unhurried groove, you know the answer doesn't matter: In love or songcraft, for Jepsen, the too much-ness is precisely the thing worth celebrating. —Marissa Lorusso
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It's the words written on eyelids that sometimes hurt the most — both knowing and unknown glances that speak louder and more mysterious, especially between lovers, friends or family. "Faraway Look," from Yola's stunning debut album Walk Through Fire, simmers at the edges of uncertainty with a flickering out-of-time quality. Maybe it's the slowly rocking country swing, the dreamy mix of pedal steel and glockenspiel or the staccato soul-infused piano, but to these ears, "Faraway Look" picks up the torch of Scott Walker, who died this year. His late '60s records, in particular, courted darkness with an irresistible croon and sublime arrangements. Yola, following suit, sings an unnerving lullaby that rattles the soul: "And when your working day is through / You walk the darkness to your bed / To dream the dreams that live inside your head." —Lars Gotrich
The heaviest cloud in the sky hangs over Canadian Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq's "Snowblind." It's not a song about the enchantment of falling snowflakes, although the decay of those gentle piano notes does indeed evoke a mid-air glisten. Instead, it's a song that imagines the absence of snow. As the tenor of Tagaq's voice shifts from a wistful sigh to an urgent gasp, it's almost as if the moisture in her throat is in mourning for the missing moisture in the air. That "Snowblind" came out the same year Iceland held a funeral for a glacier is no coincidence; climate change is claiming lives and livelihoods, forcing art to be a witness. —Ruth Saxelby
"Bossa No Se"
With lyrics that nail the furious whiplash feeling of puppy love and a synth-driven arrangement as coolly psychedelic as a Rio sunset, Chicano loveboy Cuco offers the earworm of the summer. Supremely mellow rapper Jean Carter fluffs up the mattress. —Ann Powers
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Every track on Eve, Rapsody's taut and riveting third album, bears the name of a black woman who made history, often with defiant resilience. It makes every kind of sense that her overture is "Nina," built on a familiar sample: Nina Simone's chilling version of "Strange Fruit." Rapsody wastes no time connecting the song to African American protest, dropping Emmett Till's name in her opening line. She isn't just affirming her cultural inheritance but also making a declaration; the final word she spits is "Survival." —Nate Chinen (WBGO)
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If the 18 songs on Vampire Weekend's Father of the Bride manage to display nearly everything Ezra Koenig has figured out how to do as he's built his onetime dorm room collaboration into a mature paragon of omnivorous pop-rock, "Harmony Hall" is the keystone. It connects Koenig's long-running fascination with the interior monologues of various worried minds with a rising awareness of responsibility to others; it marries his familiar winking wordiness with a new impulse to ride a groove; it's grounded deeply enough in the reality of bodily threats that he can credibly sing, "I don't wanna live like this, but I don't wanna die," before a wordless choir sends the song into the rafters.
That's Koenig's meme moment, but the line from "Harmony Hall" that has stuck in my head all year precedes it: "Anger wants a voice / voices want to sing / singers harmonize / 'til they can't hear anything." That lyric's elegance in summing up the echo chamber of political discourse in 2019 is also the source of its disillusionment. It's an admission that simply understanding a world built to inflict damage on so many does little to end the suffering, and also that walking away in despair could bring the whole thing crashing down. —Jacob Ganz
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Residente feat. iLe & Bad Bunny
"Afilando Los Cuchillos"
Caribbean people of a certain age reminisce on the ring of the truck belonging to the afilador, the knife sharpener, rolling through the neighborhood. In July, when Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Roselló became the target of island-wide protests (and beyond, across the diaspora), a different kind of music filled the streets: chants, cacerolazos of banging pots and pans, and of course, reggaeton. 800 pages of leaked Telegram chats between Roselló and his staff, including racist, vulgar and homophobic language and evidence of corruption, galvanized thousands, led by activists and the working class, to call for his resignation and in just over two weeks, #RickyRenunció. This song by Residente, Bad Bunny and iLe, released two weeks before Roselló resigned, is a reminder — post-Ricky too — that the Puerto Rican people remain, as on iLe's verse, "cortantes como los cuchillos / sacando chispa hasta llegar al filo." —Stefanie Fernández
2019 was the year of the pole dance as both high art and reclamation of power thanks in part to "Cellophane" (see also: Solange's When I Get Home film and J Lo's return to leading lady in Hustlers). But for all of FKA twigs' multimedia artistry and forward-thinking production-savvy, one may forget that she possesses an incredibly complex, adept instrument in her voice. twigs told NPR's Audie Cornish earlier this year that she recorded nearly the entire vocal for "Cellophane" in one take; one imagines she spent the months leading up to her November tour training to recapture that raw, emotional devastation live in the same way. On an album about emotional labor and who it serves, about performativity and voyeurism in a society increasingly aware of the power of privacy, "Cellophane" was an achingly simple distillation: "I trusted that I was enough for you, and I was wrong." —Cyrena Touros
"One Night Standards"
Much was made of Nashville's The Highwomen this year, and deservedly so. That feminist spin on the classic outlaw country supergroup countered rampant sexism in the country music industry with a set of songs as strong as their subject matter. But gender equity isn't merely about celebrating strengths; it's also about allowing for the human frailties that don't discriminate by sex. So let's raise a glass to the low women, like the no-strings-attached narrator in Ashley McBryde's lone 2019 song, "One Night Standards." The hard-hearted barfly turns the tables on late-night gender roles, telling her borrowed beau "Can't you just use me like I'm using you?" She's honest and unabashed about her objective, as opposed to her co-star, whose ring is conveniently missing. When she sings "I don't want a number you ain't gonna answer," it's clear she knows who she's dealing with better than he knows himself. The lyrics are full of these little details, thanks in part to co-writers Shane McAnally (who has contributed to some of Kacey Musgraves' best songs) and Nicolette Hayford, who also helped write McBryde's breakthrough hit, "A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega," one of the greatest songs of this decade. "One Night Standards" ain't far behind. —Otis Hart
Cimafunk's path from Cuba to the rest of the world was at first hampered by an album that doesn't come close to the unbridled excitement of his band's live show. But a tireless string of live shows in the US and Europe has seen their popularity grow one venue at a time and this 2019 single corrects the record to reflect this Cuban funk vision. "Potaje" translates as "stew," and in lesser hands this musical concoction would cause indigestion, but the genius of Cimafunk (Erik Iglesias Rodriguez) is his ability to string together the rhythmic commonalities of Cuban son and 1970s funk in a way that can make anyone who hears it find a little of themselves in the deep grooves. Others have mixed this recipe before, but Iglesias' irrepressible personality is a magic ingredient. It doesn't hurt that this slow-burn groove also features a cast of collaborators that spans 70 years of Cuban musical history (Omara Portuondo, Chucho Valdes and Orquesta Aragon). —Felix Contreras
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"bury a friend"
Billie Eilish has helped give pop its newest blueprint by melding a distinct songwriting voice — detached, defiant, heavy-lidded, so very 17 — with the lush, kinetic, richly textured production of her brother Finneas O'Connell. Together, they've filled her best-selling debut album (WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?) with radio staples that ruled the year from end to end.
It wasn't her biggest 2019 hit (that'd be the inescapable "bad guy"), but "bury a friend" is Eilish's most elaborate and inventive sonic statement to date. It'd take a while to catalog every unsettling ingredient here — every outside voice, every effect, every unsettling pause, every sampled dentist drill — but Eilish and O'Connell unleash them at a pace reckless enough to knock you off-kilter, while still maintaining a sense of calm foreboding straight out of a horror movie.
For all its images of broken glass and stapled tongues — not to mention Eilish's curdled admission, "I wanna end me" — "bury a friend" sounds too smoothly hypnotic, too ornately adorned, too strangely pleasing to fully surrender to nihilism. Instead, it blurs every boundary until ingratiating pop music feels indistinguishable from the most ominous art. —Stephen Thompson
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Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus
"Old Town Road (Remix)"
Some people say "Old Town Road" isn't a great song. It's a social media phenomenon, a brilliant branding move by a young Atlanta bootstrapper with a beat he bought for 30 dollars and a million-dollar smile. But I ask you this: is "Tutti Frutti" a great song? How about "Wild Thing"? Biz Markie's "Just a Friend"? The answer is yes — novelty and humor are pop music's magic elixirs, granting immortality to creative efforts that at first listen seem laughably ephemeral. Lil Nas X combined elements no one thought they needed to hear together — industrial decay (thanks to a Nine Inch Nails sample) with hip hop swagger and bona-fide cowboy song plaintiveness. Then, for the remix, he brought in Billy Ray Cyrus — an achy breaky antihero who's one of country's deepest so-called one hit wonders. The combo made people smile, dance, sing — and do it all again, not just on 15-second Tik Tok loops. Your grandma knows "Old Town Road." So does your kid sister. So does your mail carrier. What other song fulfills that claim in these fractured times? It is a classic ballad of displacement and the longing for home, and also the only song this year that rhymes "brand new guitar" with "Fendi sports bra." Lil Nas X and Billy Ray have united us all. Give them the damn Nobel to go with their CMA Award. —Ann Powers
This was the year when Lizzo finally became a star, but it's hard to imagine her not being one. She has charisma. She has confidence. She has a perfectly meme-able sense of humor (THAT TINY PURSE). She has a larger-than-life personality and "Juice" is that personality concentrated into three gloriously fun minutes. It's a powerful anthem for body positivity and self-acceptance – without being sentimental or humorless.
Lizzo loves herself and it seems like she genuinely wants you to not only to love yourself too, but to enjoy yourself. To have fun. Like she sings: "If I'm shining, everybody gonna shine" — "Juice" is Lizzo's invitation to anybody who wants to join her on the dance floor, to anybody who's down to twerk, to anybody who's ready to be their own star. —Raina Douris (World Cafe)
Alysse Gafkjen/Courtesy of the artist
Alysse Gafkjen/Courtesy of the artist
In the spring, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby announced that they'd formed an Americana supergroup called The Highwomen. From the opening notes of its first single, the project sounded like a lighthearted victory lap for its formidable group of stars, right down to the band's name — a punny twist on the mid-'80s Waylon-Willie-Johnny-Kris supergroup The Highwaymen.
But soon afterward, the band opened its self-titled debut with the tear-jerking stunner "Highwomen," which rewrites the Jimmy Webb classic that served as the Highwaymen theme song. Webb's original told the stories of laborers, travelers and searchers who'd died in the line of duty, joining a continuum of life and loss. But "Highwomen" hits harder and digs even deeper, as Carlile, Shires, Hemby and a song-stealing Yola issue a string of brief vignettes about women who died amid persecution: a migrant who perished in search of a better life, a young woman hanged for witchcraft, a Freedom Rider who never heard the gunshot that killed her and a preacher whose teachings sealed her fate.
It's an understatement to say that "Highwomen" reset expectations for the tremendous album that followed. In three-and-a-half minutes, the song bears witness to tragedy and resilience, while unfurling a grand mission statement about lives lived with purpose and meaning. —Stephen Thompson
No song in 2019 felt more searing, more perfect, than "Not." It's a song of anguish. You can hear it in Adrianne Lenker's voice and her words. As the song builds to its climax, she sings a series of denials, circling a description of something essential that remains just out of her grasp:
"It's not the room / Not beginning / Not the crowd / Not winning / Not the planet / Not spinning / Not a ruse / Not heat / Not the fire lapping up the creek / Not food / Not to eat / Not to die / Not dying / Not to laugh / Not lying / Not the vacant wilderness vying / Not the room / Not beginning / Not the crowd / Not winning / Not the planet / Not spinning"
Then it comes, at 3:22 into the song, my favorite moment of my favorite song by my favorite band in 2019: Adrianne Lenker's anguished guitar, Buck Meek's guitar roar, the bass of Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia's drums coalesce. You'd think as a music journalist I could tell you why, but here's where I fail. I can only tell you it's visceral and cathartic. But the very subject of the song itself, or at least the feeling of that subject, is the inability to describe what that something is, only to be able to explain what it is not. And there lies the urgency, the mystery — for me the thrill of art is when it's ethereal, indescribable and otherworldly. I feel better; I cannot tell you why. —Bob Boilen