Best-of music lists of the year tend to focus on all the big-budget music that ran the charts and streams, but last year Jezebel began the tradition of cataloging music that helped us, kept us sane, and all but moved us into submission. There is some big-time pop here (which includes a discovery of the K-pop band BTS), but also more than a few uncut gems because it really is the smaller things in life that help get us to safety in the mess of reality. Here’s all the music that saved us, from the alien appeal of FKA twigs to the salvation of Billie Eilish.
A lot has changed since this time last year: I got married, I got this job, I moved, I lived through another series of wildfires, I lost some friends, gained some new ones. I’m also 25 soon, an age which only feels notable for being halfway between 20 and 30. A rest stop off the highway, a couch at a crowded party, the last free seat on a subway. In “Seventeen,” Sharon Van Etten confronts the melancholy of getting older, of looking back on the versions of yourself that have been lost in the experience. At 17, I was reckless, and cutting class to smoke and party with friends and fight the world around me. I got my first tattoo at 17—and also got into my only car accident. I was impossible to be around and even more impossible to keep alive.
That 17-year-old at a party with people she’s far too young to be around was arguably more brave and alive than I will ever be again. And she also doesn’t exist anymore! She conceded those parts of herself so she could wake up eventually, purge the bullshit from her system, and find a way to keep living in the world. And when she comes back to me in dreams, or at crowded parties, I tell her: “Down beneath the ashes and stone/Sure of what I’ve lived and have known/I see you so uncomfortably alone/I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown.” —Joan Summers
I spent most of 2019 listening to old music that I’ve already listened to one million times because I spend most of my day sitting in front of a screen reading other people’s words and I require every ounce of my energy for that task. However, when I made it all the way through Homecoming, the concert album that accompanied the documentary of Beyoncé’s instantly iconic Coachella performance and tribute to HBCUs, I was rewarded with this: a breezy, effervescent cover of Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go.” A beautiful paean to getting your shit settled before ending a relationship, Beyoncé’s update includes a brief dance instructional interlude, which I always appreciate. Nice to be told what to do in a song, when you know you should do something and are not able to do so. Though I have not gone through a breakup this year, I have listened to this song as many times as I would’ve if I had—a testament to its strength. —Megan Reynolds
I remember the first time I watched this video and also the second and third and fourth time. I also remember seeing gifs of Normani bouncing a basketball off her ass float across my timeline. That’s the type of video this is, one that attaches itself to your memories to form a moment that occupies your brain forever. Choreography is all but a dying artform in pop (watch any Taylor Swift or Selena Gomez performance and weep), and Normani made it clear she intends to preserve the spirit of dance. Hearts were in a state of arrest over this video precisely because she knows how much fans love to see their pop stars move and do it well, plus the song itself is the epitome of its title. “Motivation” confirmed that at least one more Fifth Harmony member can and will be a pop star. —Clover Hope
My favorite part of this song is a section where Princess Nokia repeats the line, “Don’t you fuck with my energy,” over and over. I also love how the whole thing speaks to a part of my culture I often ignore, even though several spiritual advisors have told me it’s time to stop doing that. The line has become a sort of mantra for me, particularly this year as I’ve had to re-confront my anxiety problems after having a seizure in front of half my office. Princess Nokia has truly inspired me to stop being the person fucking with my own energy. —Shannon Melero
Unequivocally the song of the summer and most definitely the song of my own, the buoyant “Boasty” situated Wiley in a London bashment with the casual flex of someone who can credibly call himself the Godfather of Grime. Never mind that consummate zaddy Idris Elba’s verse was exceptional—yes, he writes his own verses; do not question it!—the quartet traded the most jubilant bars on a brag track released in forever. A further flex: Wiley didn’t even come through his own video, enlisting instead a nonplussed child actor named Brooklyn Appiah to impeccably lip-sync and deliver lines like, “I’m here to look after your business, bruv. I’m booking you big bits.” Brooklyn, I guess, was the boastiest. This song does not cease making me happy. —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Spoiler alert: Sincerity ahead. Though I am a couple (two) years removed from the age that titled “25, alive,” the sentiment is ultimately divorced from time. Because death, as the old adage goes, comes for all. The Olympia, Washington-based indie rock band Oh, Rose’s “25, Alive” is a song written from the third and most often overlooked stage of grief in the Kübler-Ross model: bargaining. Singer Olivia Rose laments in the song’s purposefully limited lyrics, “25, my mama died because of anger/I don’t wanna feel anger anymore.” She’s still angry about her mother’s passing, and she’d do anything to not feel that way anymore—and by extension, to have her back.
It’s a simple idea articulated with expert precision, and as the song builds, so does the depth of her voice. Near the end, she refocuses her frustration on her inability to bargain with her anger, and thus, there’s the hope: once she’s identified the sensation, what she cannot overcome, she can overcome it. That’s a life lesson I never tire of learning. —Maria Sherman
A common complaint I’ve heard about FKA twigs’s music is one of the things I’ve always loved the most about it: that she swerves past conventional, commercial songwriting structures to make something more alien of her own. Perhaps years of being pegged as an “R&B artist” has led to the expectation that she should be making songs with identifiable choruses, rather than the glitchy, Björk-y weirdness she’s served on classics like “Two Weeks” and “Glass & Patron.” But twigs’s album MAGDALENE is maybe her most accessible release, boasting production from people like Skrillex, and a collab from Future, “Sad Day” is the biggest “hit.”
What strikes me the most about “Sad Day” is that while I’m used to conflict and even the grotesque in twigs’s music, singing about sex from the perspective of a blow-up doll, of submitting to love with the intensity of a nun professing her allegiance to God, it’s remarkably tender. There’s a fairy tale aura to “Sad Day,” its production indebted to the pulsing, dreamy pop of Kate Bush, as twigs asks for her lover to “make a wish on her love” as angelically as any Disney princess. All the barbed wire twigs has spent years tying around her music, the waves of reverb, the staccato, cold vocals, melt down on “Sad Day” into one of her softest love songs. —Hazel Cills
This was the year that I began listening to BTS, the K-pop mega-group made up of seven candy-haired, seemingly poreless boys who have dominated the global pop scene for years now, and what the fuck took me so long? “Listening” doesn’t do BTS justice, for what I’ve learned is that one actually experiences BTS. The video for their 2016 song “Blood Sweat & Tears” is what turned me into a true stan when I watched it earlier this year—the baroque excess! Jimin’s shoulder shrug! Jin kissing the statue! I would laugh if I weren’t so transfixed. In 2019, they released “Boy With Luv,” a collaboration with Halsey whose accompanying video is set in a neon pastel nostalgia-tinged dream world, perfect for when you want to escape the dreary, often frightening realities of our current moment. —Esther Wang
My birthday has been a real shit day for me since 2016, when it was also the day I found out I had cancer and on my way to a surprise party I already knew about, I got a text from my dad telling me he had taken my stepmom off life support. Since that one, I prefer to be alone when the day rolls around, not to feel sad, but to remember that I was sad and am not anymore. On the third anniversary of my bad birthday, I retreated to San Luis Obispo’s Madonna Inn, ate surf and turf, and bought a last-minute ticket to see Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers’s side project, Better Oblivion Community Center, alone on the first row of the Fremont Theater.
Cheerful-sounding songs with bracingly depressing lyrics are pretty much my only jams, and this one is a perfect combination of plucky, uptempo beat layered with threats to die of a seizure on a barroom floor in the fashion of the titular Thomas. The lyrics are melancholy but the song itself is acutely aware of its self-indulgence, which is exactly how my birthday feels. By the time they got to the bridge: “I’m getting greedy with this private hell/I’ll go it alone, but that’s just as well,” I was crying unnoticed among strangers, and that also felt right. After I finished my beer, I left. Some off-duty cooks drinking in a closed restaurant invited me in for a shot of whiskey when I asked for a cigarette. We toasted my birthday. —Emily Alford
El Conejo Malo’s sweet voice always feels like home, even when he’s singing about a sexy nerd who likes to get buck (maybe especially then). I heard this song blasting from 10,000 cars over the summer, and I listened to it myself 10,000 times more. —JES
Though not my favorite album of the year, per se (that’s either Weval’s surreal The Weight or Telefon Tel Aviv’s exercise in grief Dreams Are Not Enough), Billie Eilish’s debut was the biggest relief. Don’t get me wrong: I really loved this one and listened to it a bunch. More crucial to its inclusion here though is that I find it very refreshing to thoroughly enjoy new pop music that the kids like—in my old age, I’ve gotten so crotchety, yelling at people to get off my lawn with their sing-rapping or pop-star persona so blank it makes Katy Perry look self-actualized. This 17-year-old Eilish girl, she keeps me young! I’m happy that there’s someone making legit weirdness palatable to a mass audience—there’s something Hounds of Love-era Kate Bushian about Eilish’s ability to absorb pop ideals and filter them through her and her collaborator brother Finneas O’Connell’s sensibilites to create music that is clever, bizarre, and immediately intelligible. This gives me hope for the future of pop music, a genre I will always love in the abstract no matter how much I start to hate its specifics. —Rich Juzwiak
I have a 2-year-old. That 2-year-old sometimes has tantrums. It was amid one these tantrums that I found myself desperately searching YouTube for “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” the title of his favorite book, a simple tale about anthropomorphized letters of the alphabet climbing up a coconut tree until the whole dang alphabet is up there—and then “oh no,” they all fall down. It was during that search that I found someone had created a jazzy musical interpretation of the book’s text. It’s theatrical, grating, and sung at too high a pitch—and without fail, I put that song on mid-tantrum and my toddler goes magically silent. Now, I’ll admit, I kinda like it. —Tracy Clark-Flory