This list has been updated with April releases.
It’s always exciting to see what shape music will take in a new year. What invisible connections will be made, and who will become a breakout star or a cult favorite. This year so far, we’ve got exciting new music from indie veterans, career-best (so far) music from bubbling stars, and much more. It’s too early yet to say exactly what the sounds of 2019 will be, but if you’re looking for music made by people in search of hard truths or bliss or some wild combination of both, the songs below will have you covered.
“Flat Tummy Tea,” Freddie Gibbs and Madlib
Freddie Gibbs is one of the more consistent rappers we’ve got. His voice sits low and his throat sounds like it’s been raked over gravel a few too many times. He’s cynical, but not completely cut off from relatable concepts like love and jokes and the ridiculousness of life. He is a technical master, and that’s why he works so well with Madlib, a producer who thrives on sloppily chopped, obscure samples that sometimes have so much going on that the rapping that is happening over the top of them is beside the point. “Flat Tummy Tea” sees the duo returning after 2014’s very good Pinata. It’d be easy to just run through a litany of highlights: Freddie Gibbs experimenting with a double-time flow, the beat switch halfway through, the density of the track that makes it feel like it’s ten minutes longer than it actually is (and that length would be welcome), but instead it’s just worth saying that “Flat Tummy Tea” is, in a sense, the reason all of us love rap. Even if you don’t love this song, that swagger and confidence is the backbone of the whole thing. —Sam Hockley-Smith
“How Did I Get Here,” Offset and J. Cole
The world did not really need solo albums from each Migos member, but the world doesn’t need a lot of things it’s getting right now, so here we are. This is, however, a list of the best songs of 2019 so far, and that means that we actually did need “How Did I Get Here,” from Offset’s way better than it needs to be solo album. On it, the rapper hops nimbly over a spaced-out beat, seemingly bewildered by his lot in life, running through it all in elliptical sentence fragments: “Wakin’ up to see the sunrise / I turned five, I got baptized / We was livin’ up in College Park / Midnight, heard the gunfight / Playin’ football at Forest Park / Gresham Park where your moment get defined / The story of my life / Way before I ever wrote a rhyme / Have you ever done time? / Lookin’ at my kids through the blinds / Confinement mind / How you feelin’ when you face a dime?” It’s notable for its economy, but before you can fully absorb it, J. Cole drops in for a whirlwind of a guest verse. —S.H.-S.
“Meet Again,” Maxo Kream
Sometimes you just hear a song and can only think, Now there’s a guy who’s seen some shit. That’s Maxo Kream’s “Meet Again.” In a few shorts years, the Houston rapper has quickly demonstrated a distinct handle on the fundamentals of rap storytelling. “Meet Again” gives those meeting Kream for the first time his autobiography via detailed excerpts from letters to an incarcerated friend about all the life passing him by on the outside. His updates range from the comically rude (“I seen your stupid baby momma, she still actin’ like a thot”) to the soul-crushing (“You can’t be there like a father and it’s fuckin’ with you mentally”). Kream tells it to him straight: Everyone they know — Kream included — is becoming a casualty of the system. Not a word of it is fiction. Just last December, in one clean sweep, 20 of his friends were arrested in connection with one of his music videos. The sad truth is, for Kream, they’re just another 20 people he’ll now have to write. —Dee Lockett
“Saturdays (Again),” Avey Tare
Quick question: Where does your mind go when I say that this song sounds sort of like the Gipsy Kings? If that turns you off, I get it. Gipsy Kings have their positives, but they also bring to mind that vague connotation of “world music,” which is mostly defined not by the fact that it is music of the world (though it is), but because it’s music that can be lumped into an unfortunate catchall and be sold, at, like, Whole Foods. (Does Whole Foods still sell CDs? They used to!) But I digress. “Saturdays (Again),” by Animal Collective’s Avey Tare is a gorgeous, syrupy psychedelic track that recalls, yeah, the Gipsy Kings, but is also reminiscent of Campfire Songs–era Animal Collective. If you don’t know about that album, it was improvised and recorded on a bunch of MiniDisc players (remember those?) on a screened-in porch in Maryland. This wasn’t recorded on that porch, but no one’s stopping you from heading to the nearest porch and blasting it until it feels like it was. —S.H.-S.
“Sleepwalkin,’” Better Oblivion Community Center
Better Oblivion Community Center is the project of Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers. The former is a veteran of bummer songs about love and loneliness, the other is newer but no less adept at plumbing the depths of human emotion, only she does it with a perpetual smirk that doesn’t so much obliterate the heaviness of what she’s singing about as it does make it feel more real. “Sleepwalkin’” sees Oberst and Bridgers trading verses before building to what I imagine will become a signature lyrical moment for both of them: “Is this having fun? It’s not like the way it was.” The question mark I typed is grammatically correct, but it doesn’t quite catch the quavering flatness that the pair uses in that moment. It feels more like a period. You know that they already know the answer to a question that doesn’t really need to be asked. —S.H.-S.
“Thotiana (Remix),” Blueface ft. Cardi B
Like any popular rap song, there are plenty of remixes to choose from here. Maybe you’d prefer the one with YG, or the maybe unofficial one with Tyga, or whatever “Thotiana Remix ft. Disney’s Goofy (PARODY)” is supposed to be. They all have their positives (maybe not the Goofy one), but I’m going with Cardi B’s contribution to Blueface’s wan (in a good way!), hypnotic (also in a good way!), and disorienting (still in a good way!) “Thotiana,” a song that sounds like it was made in a hot car with all the windows rolled up at 5 p.m. on a blazing summer day. It’s intangible, barely there, and you’ll be confused about why you keep coming back to it. Blueface is onto something. —S.H.-S.
Solange ft. Playboi Carti, “Almeda”
What makes Solange so distinctly Solange is her effortless ability to cull freedom from any form of entrapment. Looking at the way black people have increasingly been snuffed out of black culture for the purposes of commodification, for example, she can still offer hope by snatching back the pride in our ownership. “Almeda,” a song off of her excellent latest, When I Get Home, extends the message of A Seat at the Table’s “F.U.B.U.” and lists as gospel the rich qualities of blackness (be it our liquor of choice or the versatility of our hair) that make us us, which can never believably be chopped and screwed by any other culture (unlike the song’s beat, an homage to her Houston rap roots). Hunter Harris said it best: “‘Almeda’ plays with a special alchemy of everything that feels banal, but special. Brown skin, black braids, brown liquor — sip, sip, sip.” —D.L.
Well, I’ve never made a single song in my life, so who am I to say Lizzo’s “Soulmate” is one of the best songs of the year? I don’t know, man, sometimes facts are facts. Lizzo gets a lot of praise and, suddenly, now more and more flak for her very specific branding of self-love. But she only does it because (a) she does it so well she oughta patent the phrase, and (b) because sometimes this shit’s deeper than an Instagram feed. For Lizzo, loving herself is what keeps her alive and fulfilled. Loving herself is what got her this far and if it’s carried her to this level of fame, why wouldn’t she preach that gospel to uplift anyone else who needs to hear it? This is the best lyric I’ve heard all year and I will repeat it to myself in the mirror every day: “True love ain’t something you can buy yourself / True love finally happens when you by yourself / So if you by yourself, then go and buy yourself another round from the bottle on the higher shelf.” “Soulmate” is not a song about not wanting anyone else; it’s about not needing anyone but yourself. —D.L.
Beyoncé, “Sorry – Original Demo”
So rarely do artists let us see their raw emotions in real time, when the wounds are still fresh, exposed, and hemorrhaging. Beyoncé was a mentally battered woman on Lemonade, and it took guts to admit those feelings of defeat she suffered in such a public way; it also took time and a lot of clarity, being removed from the pain and having reached a resolution. It makes the vitriol and spite on the version of “Sorry” we’ve known for three years now seem performative — though still very much rooted in genuine disgust — in comparison to its original demo, which she’s now shared with Lemonade’s wider streaming release. The Beyoncé we hear on the OG “Sorry” didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to spit snappy one-liners for IG captions (you won’t find “suck on my balls, pause” or “boy bye”). Her snarling “hell nah” is just a meager “hell no” here. There’s no sheen on the production yet either, just placeholder synths. Bey sounds spent, but also more in touch with her humanity in this stream-of-conscious, spoken-word approach (“tryna keep my family right” just kills). She’s showing open nerve endings; showing how she processes and creates spectacular art out of spectacular trauma; and also showing, once again, that she works damn hard at perfecting her craft. Neither version is superior to the other. They merely represent Beyoncé at different stages of grief. —D.L.