It’s a silly, completely irrational thought: Shortly after the new year begins, I despair that I’ll find any new music that was as good, beautiful, or evocative as the music I discovered in the previous year. And I’m always wrong. By the year’s end, I’m struck by the amount of incredible music that I’ve heard over the past twelve months, and 2019 was no different.
Below are some of my favorite songs of the year, the ones that wouldn’t leave me alone but continued to pursue and haunt me as 2019 marched on.
The story behind Air Review’s latest album is heartbreaking — more details in my review — but to their credit, the band used that pain and heartache and channelled it into an album of heartfelt electronic pop. “You Won’t Be Coming Home” is the album’s highlight, a ballad where frontman Doug Hale pours his heart out. Even if you don’t know the story, lyrics like “If you could have stayed/I’d have never let you go/Love is the price I pay” pack a punch that’s only enhanced by the band’s extremely polished pop.
20 years after their eponymous debut, American Football is still releasing evocative music that occupies a liminal space between emo, math-rock, and on their latest album, shoegaze. Clocking in at over 7 minutes, “Silhouettes” takes time to build with languid guitars, jazzy drums, and Steve Reich-esque rhythms, and the band does it so effortlessly that the song’s gently nostalgic spell is impossible to escape. But when the music is this lovely and spacious, why would you want to? If you’re not careful, you might find yourself planning a roadtrip just so you can listen to this song as the miles pass by.
For much of his discography, James Clements’ music has been inspired by the deepest and darkest reaches of outer space. But for The Waves, he draws inspiration from a different sort of depths — the ocean. Listening to “Echo Location” feels like descending into an unexplored ocean trench; Clements’ sounds get denser and more ominous as the song unfolds, while flickering guitars beckon you to plunge even deeper into its forbidden waters. It’s dark, ominous, and just about as entrancing as ambient techno gets.
Though their Bandcamp page says it was released in 2019, I’m not fully convinced that Automelodi’s “La Poussière” wasn’t actually released by 4AD back in 1983 or 1984, and we’re only just discovering it now. The song’s pulsing synths and icy guitars evoke vintage darkwave (e.g., Clan of Xymox, Attrition) in all the best ways, and I daresay that I hear whispers of The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds in there, too. As for the French lyrics, sung in suitably pouty fashion by Xavier Paradis, they’re the sonic icing on the cake.
According to her Bandcamp page, Caterina Barbieri’s Ecstatic Computation “revolves around the creative use of complex sequencing techniques and pattern-based operations to explore the artefacts of human perception and memory processes by ultimately inducing a sense of ecstasy and contemplation.” Pretty heady-sounding stuff to be sure, but then you listen to “Fantas“ ‘s seemingly infinite layers of shimmering synthesizer cascades and you realize that terms like “ecatasy” and “contemplation” are the only words capable of describing Barbieri’s electronic music.
Bat For Lashes’ Lost Girls was envisioned as the soundtrack for an imaginary ’80s sci-fi movie about a gang of biker women roaming the streets of LA. But in Natasha Khan’s version of the ’80s, the only extant sounds are the evocative soundscapes of musicians like Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel — so you better believe that “The Hunger” is an appropriately cinematic epic replete with stirring vocals, soaring guitar riffs, and vibrant synths.
On their most recent album, The Mirage, the Los Angeles-based duo known as Chasms expanded their industrial/dreampop palette with the flexible and murky sounds of dub, with the result being pure audio intoxication. Jess Labrador’s voice coos and drifts through a shifting soundscape of brittle beats, rubbery bassnotes, and chiming guitars that recalls everything from Cocteau Twins to Cranes to Seefeel.
“Divine Rêverie” may be the loveliest song from the enigmatic City Girl to date, and that’s saying something; the California-based chill-hop producer has released a lot of pretty music over the years (e.g., 2018’s Neon Impasse and Celestial Angel). Opening with cinematic orchestral swells and dreamy synths — and of course, City Girl’s patented beats — and ending on a delicate piano coda, “Divine Rêverie” is the soundtrack to a rain-chilled daydream, like the one your favorite anime protagonist might have whilst staring out the window of their Tokyo apartment.
When people think of “shoegaze,” they probably default to imagining nigh-endless layers of billowing guitars and ethereal vocals singing about rainy days, ocean waves, and all-around mopeyness. But Dye’s “Glass Pendant” is a nice reminder that shoegazers can still rock hard, too. Its rollicking, distortion-laden guitars and frenetic pace bring to mind everything from Swervedriver’s Raise to Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation.
My introduction to Friendly Fires came via The Pattern Forms, their excellent collaboration with The Advisory Council’s Jon Brooks. That project’s hauntological pop, as excellent as it was, did nothing to prepare me for this song’s dancefloor funk, though. Shuffling beats, punchy trumpets, earnest vocals about enjoying a fuller life, and an undeniable groove… if you enjoyed Cut Copy or Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” or ever wished Junior Boys would lighten up a bit, then this is your new favorite jam. My only complaint: At 3 1/2 minutes, it’s over way too soon.
Knowing only fragments of Japanese, I had absolutely no idea what Haru Nemuri sings/raps/screams during “Take Back the World.” But I got so caught up in the rush of Nemuri’s words and her panicked, frantic intensity — which never subsides over the course of the song’s 4 minutes — that somehow the language barrier just didn’t seem to matter. But after I learned that she’s singing about finding one’s place in the world and validating your existence, her intense delivery made all the more sense.
It might be tempting to label ISON’s majestic Inner — Space a “metal” album given the background of its two members. But on “Isae,” such a label seems to fall apart given the song’s swirling ambience, synth arpeggios, and poignant vocals and lyrics (“I don’t know where I came from/I see it when I’m dreaming/Another time and space”). Then again, the metal genre is all about intensity, and despite “Isae“ ‘s glacial pace, its beautifully existential introspection is certainly intense. Maybe Inner — Space — arguably my favorite album of 2019 — is a metal album after all.
The first time I listened to “Superbike,” I could’ve sworn I’d heard it before. But on second thought, I wasn’t so sure. Maybe it’s because Melina Duterte’s breezy dreampop so effortlessly recalls bands like The Sundays and Belly that it sounds familiar, like she’s tapping into some of my favorite musical elements and distilling them into their purest form. Whatever the case, if you like your vocals coy, lyrics pensive, and guitars both shimmery and jangly, then you’re going to love this.
Life on Venus’ “What Lies Beneath” is a perfect example of somber shoegaze pop. Here, male and female vocals intertwine sadly while the guitars shift from reverb-laced moping to pure sonic onslaught and back with aplomb. It’s a tried and true formula, one that’s been performed by the likes of Slowdive, Lush, Catherine Wheel, and other genre giants — and Moscow’s Life on Venus does it just as well. (Related: My review of Life on Venus’ Departure EP.)
The lilting arpeggios of Nobuo Uematsu’s “Prelude” evoke a sense of wonder, hinting at an epic quest that lies just beyond the “New Game” option. Which is precisely what Final Fantasy VII delivered, and in the process, became one of the greatest video games of all time. So how do you possibly make it even more epic? By blending it with synthwave beats and textures, as Scottish producer Lo Pan does here. This could’ve been really cheesy, but it works far better than you probably think it could or should.
The best synthwave song I heard in 2019, a year that also contained new releases from the likes of Makeup and Vanity Set, Timecop1983, Com Truise, and Ogre. The theme song for a video game of the same name — in which you play a samurai in a neon-drenched future metropolis — “Katana ZERO” has the sleek, menacing textures that you’d expect from the genre. But producer LudoWic’s arrangements also imbue the song with an emotional resonance that makes it more arresting than mere Neuromancer-inspired nostalgia could ever be.
This one’s a bit of a cheat because I previously included it in my favorite songs of 2015, but you know what, I don’t care. Luxury’s Trophies was (finally) officially released earlier this year, and this song — and by extension, the rest of the album — is just too magnificent to be confined to a single year. While most of the music I listen to these days tends be of the ambient/electronic variety, I can still appreciate a rollicking guitar rock tune replete with hooks and searing riffs, which “Parallel Love” has in abundance.
Velvet Blue Music is one of the best indie labels out there, and Map’s “Lost Time” is a perfect example why. Like his Fine China label mates, Map’s Josh Dooley is indebted to ’80s alternative bands like The Smiths. However, there’s far too much skill and elegance in a mopey ballad like “Lost Time” — just listen to those weepy synths on the song’s bridge, for goodness’ sake, or the glorious outro — to dismiss it as nothing more than a love letter to Dooley’s favorite bands. (Related: My review of Map’s History, Mystery, and Gifts: Writer’s Block, Pt. 2.)
After years of solo records and tours, David Bazan resurrected Pedro the Lion and released Phoenix, one of his strongest albums in awhile. The music is stripped down indie-rock and his lyrics are moving recollections of childhood, family, and growing up. On “Yellow Bike,” he turns the ubiquitous childhood memory of learning to ride a bike into a metaphor for desiring friendship and community as an adult. The song’s coda — “My kingdom for someone to ride with” — is devastating in its simplicity and poignancy as only Bazan can make it, thanks to his understated, world-weary delivery.
The time leading up to Pure Bathing Culture’s third LP was fraught with difficulty; among other things, the dreampop duo were dropped by their label. But the result was a defiant resolve to not go quietly into the night, with vocalist Sarah Versprille and guitarist Daniel Hindman drawing strength from each other during difficult times. So, when Versprille sings about “dark nights and blackest dreams” and “all night I’ll run with you/’til black in the sky turns blue,” those aren’t just pretty turns of phrase. The duo knows what they sing of, which gives their glittery, glossy ’80s-influenced pop emotional heft.
Robert Rich is one of modern ambient music’s most respected and prolific artists, with over 40 albums to his name, and Tactile Ground is one of his best works in a long time. Inspired by Rich’s own experiences with synesthesia, Tactile Ground’s atmospherica is intimate and perfectly suited for headphones. At two hours long, it’s a daunting listen, and his otherworldly sounds aren’t for everyone. But a song like “Tentative Unfolding,” with its keening drones and barren, windswept textures, is the perfect music for when I’m at my most introverted and seeking solitude.
Rocketship isn’t the most prolific artist — they’ve only released a handful of albums in the last two decades — but they definitely adhere to the “quality over quantity” approach. Case in point: “Outer Otherness,” which blends an irresistible synthesizer groove with swirling string arrangements and Ellen Osborn’s heavenly voice soaring high into the stratosphere.
Rumor has it that Young in My Head is Starflyer 59’s last album, and there’s a definite sense of finality flowing throughout the somber “Remind Me.” As is his wont, Jason Martin reflects on a life spent making music (“I had my turn/Stayed longer than most/Longer than I should have”) even as he looks forward to passing on the torch to the next generation: “I wanna work with my kid/Record all of his songs/‘Cause mine are all gone/And when I play guitar/I’ll play it on weekends/Write riffs with my son or some of my old friends.”
Unwed Sailor is still an “instrumental rock” band in the technical sense, but their music transcends any easy assumptions that come with that particular genre tag. “Jealous Heart” isn’t slow-burning post-rock à la Explosions in the Sky, though it certainly soars as high. Nor is it tricky math-rock à la Don Caballero, though there’s still details and complexity. The closest comparison I can think of is Grails’ cinematic music, but make no mistake: as Johnathon Ford’s project enters its third decade, it’s very much its own thing, and it’s never sounded better. (Related: My review of Unwed Sailor’s Heavy Age.)
Much like their label mates Cloakroom, the beauty in Torche’s “Admission” is due in large part to how well the Florida foursome absolutely pummels you into the ground with their heavy rock, their guitars, bass, and drums used as blunt weapons of the loveliest sort. “Admission” absolutely rocks as it tears through its three-minute runtime, leaving you with a sense of exhilaration that makes you want to press “Play” again… and again… and again.