How a song goes from a casual listen to becoming part of your musical lifeblood is one of the mysteries and magic of being a music fan. Some achieve this status by being daily companions on the walk to work or in the evenings, others are tied to places, times, memories, emotions so much so that they feel like old friends you’ve known all your life.
Across the span of a year and hours of music listening certain songs just rise up and catch your attention with undeniable force. A few stand apart from the album they were released, others are linked to the wider collection of songs they come from. Therefore artists that rate highly on this list may be in lower places on my album list and vice versa.
So without further ado, here are the twenty songs that have laid claim to my heart in 2019.
20) Shovels & Rope – Good Old Days
The album By Blood had a rawness to its songs which instantly appealed, and there’s something about this song and how the vocal layers of the duo make it sound like they are sharing the same feeling, the same breath even which makes it irresistible to me.
19) Michaela Anne – If I Wanted Your Opinion
Sassy, smart and seriously good, Michaela Anne’s If I Wanted Your Opinion is the feminist takedown song that every woman needs right now. It’s also one of the most ridiculously catchy and fun songs I heard this year.
18) Lizzie No – Channels
Lizzie No’s voice just connects with me and has done ever since I first heard her sing. Channels is one of the best examples of her talent, and musically this song is an infectious delight from start to finish.
17) Sarah Klang – New Day Coming
Echoing Mama Cass musically can never be a bad thing and on this song Sarah Klang evokes her spirit and style with ease. The lyrics are uplifting and optimistic in a way that I really needed at times this year. Lush, dreamy and beautiful. An underrated gem.
16. Esther Rose – Handyman
Esther Rose is one of my favourite discoveries of the year. I love the central metaphor of this song, and musically you can’t help but swoon along as the band plays into the night.
15) Adia Victoria – Pacolet Road
There’s something meanacingly brilliant about this song, and the whole album. She sings about heading out into the world and never looking back to where she came from, no matter how many devils might be chasing her. Follow her down Pacolet Road and you won’t regret it.
14) Allison Moorer – Heal
To take a song from the album ‘Blood’ out of context is almost wrong in a way, such is the powerful journey that album takes you on. Still ‘Heal’ feels like classic songwriting, a moment where the specific personal pain Moorer endured is transformed into an understanding about universal suffering that offers a prayer for healing.
13) Karen & the Sorrows – Guaranteed Broken Heart
Guaranteed Broken Heart tells the story of how the narrator tries to avoid thinking about her love, since no good can ever come of it. We’ve all suffered from those crippling daydreams of things we can never have. It’s the stuff great country songs are made of and this is no exception.
12) Beth Bombara – Tenderhearted
Tenderhearted is best sounding country rock song on this whole list, with a vocal to die for and some of the sweetest and most real lyrics of any love song I heard this year.
11) Jenny Lewis – Wasted Youth
Every song on On The Line felt equally as good and essential so it was hard to select just one above the others. Wasted Youth with its Do something, while your heart is thumping line stood out for its emotional honesty and unflinching look at life.
10) Yola- Faraway Look
With a dramatic vocal performance worthy of her heroes Aretha and Dusty, Faraway Look was the kind of vintage soul fusion that felt familiar and yet fresh. Yola is wowing them everywhere she goes and this song is the highlight of her excellent year.
9) The Highwomen – Crowded Table
Ok so I’m a loner who gets anxiety at crowded tables but I love this song and the sentiment behind it. Everyone is welcome at the Highwomen’s house, we are all in this together and with songs as good as this one I could almost start to believe that harmony on earth is possible.
8) Miranda Lambert – Dark Bars
One day I hope to own a bar with a jukebox that plays ‘nothing but country’ but until then I shall listen to this song and imagine myself in among the honky tonks with Miranda, drinking and shooting the breeze. The best song on her album Wildcard by far.
7) Caroline Spence – Mint Condition
Written with the voice of Emmylou Harris in her mind, Caroline Spence brought this song to life and her dream came true when Ms Harris agreed to sing background vocals on the track. Together their voices are stunning, of course, but what makes the song is the intelligent and intimate lyricism which is as good as the best writers in any genre.
6) Our Native Daughters – Black Myself
The confidence on show in the Our Native Daughters project is something so life-affirming and inspiring that it was hard to choose one stand out moment. Amythyst Kiah with her own anthem Black Myself, about claiming her identity and proudly believing in herself was the one I kept coming back to and finding new power within it every time.
5) Joanna Sternberg – This is Not Who I Want to Be
Emotionally raw and revelatory, This is Not Who I Want to Be, is the most beautifully devastating song I heard all year. It’s so good it might even save a life. Pass it on.
4) Brittany Howard – Stay High
What Howard does vocally on this song is breathtakingly original and impressive. The song itself too feels like some of her most emotionally intense and unfiltered writing. A slow burn that stays with you.
3) Tanya Tucker – Bring My Flowers Now
I am a sucker for an epic piano ballad about death and hey they don’t come much better than this one. The only self-penned song on her incredible new album, Tanya worked on this for decades before Brandi and the twins helped her finish it in twenty minutes. It’s the kind of classic country songwriting that made the genre famous, steeped in heartbreaking truths. Shower her in roses, this one is for life.
2) Lana Del Rey – The Greatest
Damn if this song didn’t just knock me off my feet the first time I heard it and I think I’m still on the ground months later. Widescreen, cinematic, windswept, dreamy drama of the highest order. In the song Lana is just walking thorough the streets, calmly watching the world end. Nostalgia haunts her and now she feels numb, guess that I’m burned out after all. Maybe we all are, and this song is that moment of utter desolate beauty which helps us feel better as we fade away and radiate.
1) Sharon Van Etten – Seventeen
The power in Seventeen is the vocal, with every moment building up to that devastating climax like Van Etten is bringing forth every feeling she’s endured across her whole life and letting it burn and roar into the ether.
In August this year a class I teach had an opportunity to review a live show, which turned out to be Sharon Van Etten. It was strange for me, already a fan of her music, to see her fresh through the eyes of teenagers. Kids who were seventeen themselves connected with a song about what it’s like to be twice that age (my age), looking back at your life with a searing, haunting honesty. After she played the song live one girl had tears in her eyes, unable to explain why it just made her feel so sad. She’ll find out one day, I guess. Life is all pain, sorrow, love and survival. Seventeen captures that essence of adulthood in a way that feels emotionally and musically essential.
You can hear all these songs in my playlist below. Album of the year list to be published later today. Let me know your choices in the comments or on social media.