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The best songs of 2019

From Ariana Grande to (Sandy) Alex G and everything in between, this is the music we loved this year.

December 18, 2019
The best songs of 2019

2019! What a year, huh. Lotta beginnings, lotta endings, lotta unfinished business. Seems like at the end of every year this decade we've increasingly asked ourselves, "Is there really anything worth celebrating right now?" 2019 was, in many ways, no exception. But the bottom line is that art can be an important and momentary distraction from the things that trouble us and the people around us, so think of this less as a "best of the year" list (we went unranked this year, just because) and more a musical star chart of the works that we found solace and pleasure in throughout this year. That's always worth celebrating. -- Larry Fitzmaurice, Executive Editor

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Rosalía, “Millionária”

“Con Altura” may have been Rosalía’s record-shattering megahit this year, but there was also the rumba-inspired “Millionária,” a bubbling, joyful, restless two-minute burst delivered in her native Catalan and shot through with three English words: ”Fucking money, man.” It’s her most immediately melodic song yet, proof that her move towards pop ubiquity is just getting started; and “Millionária” is also backed with “Dio$ No$ Libre del Dinero,” a downcast song in which she prays for freedom from the dollar — because, at her best, merging old and new, desire and depression, Rosalia is a brilliant contradiction. -- Alex Robert Ross, Associate Editor

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fka twigs, “home with you”

Taking care of yourself while taking care of others may be the seminal millennial challenge. So much of life is prioritizing that sometimes we don’t notice each other until one of us is on fire. On “home with you,” fka twigs mixes ancient chords with hip-hop riffs to create a heartbreaking ode to trying — trying to better yourself, to be better towards others, to simply keep up with what the world wants from you. Is there no one for whom you would run down a hill in the dark while they burn down their house for your attention? Would you ever burn your home down for someone else’s attention? -- Annalise Domenighini, Social Media Director

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Ashnikko, "Stupid" [ft. Yung Baby Tate]

Who said TikTok doesn't bring anything good to the table? Ashnikko is a total weirdo who spent her year opening for Danny Brown and working with other left-of-center pop oddballs like Brooke Candy; sometimes she does pop-punk, sometimes she does rap — and "Stupid" finds her squarely in the latter mode, delivering kiss-off after kiss-off with a solid verse from Yung Baby Tate. Honestly, I could just listen to her yelling during the song's opening seconds on loop, for hours. -- LF

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NSG, “Options”

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In a year when the U.K. rap scene was dominated by a battle between rising profiles and the Metropolitan police’s efforts to criminalize the musicians at its center, NSG offered nothing but joy. “Options” is the six-piece’s calling card, a Jae-5 produced mix of afrobeats and London road rap that could have only have come from a city as diverse as the English capital. Like so many breakout hits, “Options” inspired a dance challenge — but unlike so many viral efforts, it felt free from a social media manager’s contrivances. Standing still to an NSG song simply isn’t an option. -- David Renshaw, Contributing Writer

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Juice WRLD, "Robbery"

One of the strongest singles by an artist gone too soon. This one fucking hurt, man. -- LF

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Normani, “Motivation”

The day Normani dropped “Motivation” and its accompanying music video was nothing short of an Event. The former Fifth Harmony member and recent FADER cover star’s first solo single was an expansive pop song and, along with a clip full of homages to 2000s pop culture, was an announcement that Normani had arrived. -- AD

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Lil Tecca, "Ransom"

Gotta love how much fun Tecca seems to be having in the golf cart in this video. His voice sounds syrup-sweet throughout, the whole thing is one giant earworm that sticks to your brain like glue. Even if this ends up being his only hit, it's still quite a hit. -- LF

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Aldous Harding, “The Barrel”

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It’d be a perverse and surreal world in which Aldous Harding’s delicate folk track “The Barrel” is a summer trunk-rattler, and yet it’s felt like that’s the world I’ve been living in this year. Since its release in February, I’ve heard “The Barrel” blasted at parties, sung along to during pre-gaming sessions, floating out of car windows, and pouring out of speakers at every manner of bar, cafe, and trendy boutique. A pop-leaning exhale after 2017’s dark and dense Party, “The Barrel,” the lead single from Harding’s impeccable 2019 album Designer, is one of those miraculous semi-crossover moments that most artists rarely get. The song’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar and Harding’s Dido-meets-Medieval-troubadour vocal performance are delicate and transfixing, so much so that it’s easy to miss the darkness in Harding’s lyrics — impressionistic verses about the imposing spectre of motherhood on a working woman’s life. Of all the future pool party classics 2019 spawned, “The Barrel” was the least likely candidate — and the most memorable. -- Shaad D'Souza, Contributing Writer

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Angelo De Augustine, "All Your Life"

The most hauntingly intimate song on one of the most close-mic'd breakup albums I've heard in quite some time. It's cursed to compare anything to Pink Moon, but this Asthmatic Kitty singer-songwriter nailed this vibe with this year's Tomb. A decade ago, making music like this used to launch you to indie superstardom faster than you could say "two nights at Bowery Ballroom"; now, it's a secret for you to discover if you're lucky enough, which is beautiful in its own way. -- LF

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The Highwomen, “Highwomen”

With their album as the Highwomen, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby heard the country music industry’s insistence that no one wants to hear women and politely asked them to shove it. A feminine re-imagining of country supergroup the Highwaymen, The Highwomen’s sorta-title track itself is a manifesto: “We are the Highwomen,” the band sings accompanied by Sheryl Crow on bass, detailing four stories — including one sung by UK country-soul extraordinaire Yola — of women from throughout history. As a witch, a preacher, a freedom rider, and an asylum seeker, these four stories rewrite the legacy of the Highwaymen as no longer revolving around four individualistic attempts at spiritual enlightenment, but as one that revolves around those who seek to better society simply by existing in it. -- AD

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Cass McCombs, "Absentee"

Man, I hope Cass McCombs never dies. -- LF

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Rema, “Dumebi”

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Afropop is a genre dominated by established arena-sized artists like Burna Boy, WizKid, and Davido. This year, however, came the rise of a new generation of artists following in the footsteps of the giants who helped engineer the genre’s global crossover. Alongside Joeboy and Naira Marley, Nigeria’s Rema represents the future sound. The hypnotic “Dumebi” is a highlight of the teenager’s charmingly disparate-sounding debut EP. Melody pours out of Rema like fresh juice, his silk smooth delivery disguising an overtly lustful song as a heartfelt lullaby. -- DR

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DaBaby, "Suge (Yea Yea)"

Video of the year, in addition to being a hot song. Who needs Ludacris to have a comeback when you have this? -- LF

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Sturgill Simpson, “Remember to Breathe”

After being heralded as the savior of country music and winning a Grammy for Best Country Album with an album that was decidedly not country, Sturgill Simpson holed up in a Michigan hotel in Michigan and wrote Sound & Fury, an album that traces his rise to the top and the emotional response he found himself to have to it all. Tucked in at the very beginning of that album is “Remember to Breathe,” an absolute rager of a guitar track that manages to subtly tie the lessons of its predecessor into a new landscape. With a guitar that literally wails, “Remember to Breathe” finds the artist at his most alone on an album all about isolation. -- AD

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Richard Dawson, “Jogging”

Richard Dawson’s songs always sound restless, as though he's roaming around their spaces and searching for undiscovered nooks. He writes melodies that no other singer’s found with structures that most songwriters haven’t even sketched out — so while “Jogging” flirts with rock tropes, it’s really a series of left turns as Dawson dives into his protagonist’s mini-disasters, and paranoias. Dawson’s England has almost always been bleak, but it’s never been easier to see through the singer’s eyes than it is here, as the country comes to life in new ways outside the song. “I know I must be paranoid / But I feel the atmosphere ‘round here is growing nastier,” he sings after detailing a racist hate crime in his block of flats, dead in the middle of a country that’s seen hate crimes skyrocket over the past two years. He’d be sui generis without England’s descent into grotesqueness; hopefully England will give him the chance one day. -- ARR

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Steve Lacy, “Playground”

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In an era when everyone from Janelle Monae to your bog-standard indie band can cite Prince as an influence, it takes something special to stand out from the crowd grooving in the purple one’s wake. Steve Lacy, member of the capital-I Internet and product of the lower-case-i internet, pushed himself to the front of the pack with the irresistible “Playground.” The funky bass and falsetto vocals combine to create a song that wears its influences like Prince straddled a motorbike: with purpose and style. -- DR

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Charli XCX, “Gone” [ft. Christine and the Queens]

“Gone” is a UFO orbiting the desiccated world of Planet Pop, hiding in plain sight but overwhelmed by noise pollution. Co-producer and singer Charli XCX paints deep isolation within the song’s euphoric, chrome-plated chassis, and in doing so traces the contours of a better world. -- Jordan Darville, Contributing Writer

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(Sandy) Alex G, “In My Arms”

Alex Giannascoli’s catalog is kaleidoscopic, with hundreds of songs teeming out over the edges of peripheral vision. His eighth album House of Sugar is a shimmering work that shifts focus without losing its core image, with difficult-to-pin-down lyrics — but on “In My Arms,” a languid rock song surrounded by feedback, Giannascoli gives the listener just enough. “He laid his head back on my chest / Once had a wife, now nobody's left,” he sings. “You said the song makes you wanna do bad things / You know good music makes me wanna do bad things.” You know none of that — and Giannascoli will spend his career throwing journalists and fans of the scent in interviews to make sure nobody gets close to knowing — but the contours of it, even from a distance, are quietly, and sadly, beautiful. -- ARR

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Rema, "Iron Man"

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It’s crazy to think that, before April of this year, the vast majority of the people gushing over 19-year-old Nigerian prospective superstar Rema had never heard him hum one note. But since then the Benin City native has released three EPs, and almost every song featured has outright rejected uniformity. His highlight to-date is “Iron Man,” an Ozedikus-produced track from Rema’s April-released eponymous EP in which his Hindustani-like harmonies fit so effortlessly into the beat that he resembles another instrument in the mix. If he's already pulling off this kind of stuff, it's exciting to think about how his future will unfold. -- Lawrence Burney, Senior Editor

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Young Thug, “I Bought Her” / “Hot” [ft. Lil Duke]

Young Thug can make love and power seem like items on the shelf of a luxury store where everyone knows his name. A harmless dream in the midst of capitalism’s killing fever, the opulence of “I Bought Her” adds to the illusion by feeling more like part of a natural order than the rewards of a struggle; listening to the song gives you the feeling of winning a game you were forced to play. -- JD

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Charli XCX — “Thoughts”

When one thinks of the Platonic ideal of a sad pop song, a track like Adele’s “Someone Like You” probably comes to mind — heartbreaking and graceful in equal measure, devastating on first listen and hopeful on fiftieth. But what about songs for how you feel when listening to something like “Someone Like You,” that sound like how it feels to be doubled over in emotional pain, sobbing and snotty and screaming, because the sadness you’re feeling can’t coexist with hope? “Thoughts” is that song, a noxious and puckering distillation of catastrophic pain.

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The centrepiece of Charli XCX’s third album Charli, “Thoughts” is loud, abrasive, and overwhelming, propelled by A. G. Cook’s demented Tron-like synths and Charli’s wounded vocal. It’s hard to be anything less than utterly overwhelmed by a track like this, which is so forceful and particular in sound and so galaxy-brain simple in its thesis: “On the drugs at a bar, took ‘em all / Can’t stop thinking ‘bout you.” But with that sense of overwhelm comes such a gratifying and powerful sense of catharsis that it’s hard not to want to listen again. The world isn’t in short supply of sad songs, but it sure could use a few more tracks like “Thoughts.” -- SD

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Fire-Toolz, "✓ Being"

Angel Marcloid’s new album Field Whispers (Into The Crystal Palace) reveals the long shadow of vaporwave to be a prism, and "✓ Being" is its most retina-challenging rainbow. -- JD

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PUP, “Scorpion Hill”

After three albums of in-song breakdowns, this is PUP’s most interesting moment, and it’s no coincidence that the breakdown on “Scorpion Hill” belongs to someone else. The song was triggered by a night on tour spent on the needle-strewn floor of a stranger — someone the Toronto four-piece wanted to resent, until they saw a photo of what must’ve been the stranger’s kid pinned up on the fridge. The result is a fill-in-the-blanks fiction in which Stefan Babcock details the litany of shitty indignities thrust upon his protagonist — layoffs, substance abuse, “pretty dark thoughts” — while the song stays disturbingly upbeat, tethered to Zack Mykula’s relentless drums. “I was bursting apart like a flame from a spark / Thinking ‘Jesus, this can't be for real,’” Babcock sings before turning to the photo on the fridge and locating the gun “buried beneath piles of clothes in the room where your son sleeps.” PUP’s continued ability to locate the fears and miseries of others places them among punk’s best. -- ARR

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Rosalía, “Con Altura” [ft. J Balvin and El Guincho]

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If 2018 was about Rosalía emerging as an artist able to bend genre to her will, 2019 was about pulling the mainstream into her orbit. “Con Altura” is, in comparison to the flamenco-by-way-of-Timbaland breakout El Mal Querer, a straightforward affair; a reggaeton hit assisted by one of the genre’s biggest names, J Balvin is the stuff of boardroom excitement. What Rosalía brings to the table is an idiosyncrasy and charisma that drips from every second of “Con Altura.” If you’re going to lean into pop’s gaze then you’d better be ready, and Rosalía proved this year she’s got what it takes. -- DR

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Weyes Blood, “Andromeda”

In recent weeks, the sun in Sydney has been burning red more often than not. Clouded and tinted by the smoke of rampant bushfires, it's a case of life imitating art, the earth’s life source providing a warning in the face of impending apocalypse like it does in any number of science-fiction films. Natalie Mering’s fourth Weyes Blood record Titanic Rising exists under the terror of a red sun animated by constant fear of climate apocalypse, and the end of life as we know it. “Andromeda,” the record’s dazed, romantic, highlight, finds Mering staring at a sky engulfed in flames and deciding, definitively, to indulge in love as the world ends. “Love is calling,” she sings in her distinctive, Karen Carpenter-esque vocal tone, “It’s time to give to you / Something you can hold on to.” Like so much art this year, Titanic Rising is a call to arms — not to fight back or #Resist, but to take care of yourself, to embrace community and family and simply take comfort in life’s simpler pleasures. It’s a nihilistic message that, in the hands of Mering and producer Jonathan Rado, sounds heavenly. -- SD

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Earl Sweatshirt, “EAST”

The timeline has made us into tribes of rat kings who copy-and-post Twitter joke formats to get one more sugar water serotonin rush. The accordion-driven beat on “EAST” is the spool through which Earl spins enchantment from tragedy, but fans chose to compare it to SpongeBob instead. Y’all cowards don’t want to be challenged by new music, you want to be comforted by old memes. -- JD

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Ari Lennox, "New Apartment"

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Ari Lennox’s music easily proves how gifted of an artist and vocalist she is, but to fully appreciate her you must dive into her extra-musical personality. On Instagram Live streams that end up uploaded to Youtube and Twitter by fans, the Dreamville singer tells stories about getting fired from Wendy’s, the status of her love life, and how she’s inspired by XVideos. It's impossible not to connect with her on a personal level, and her best music reflects that familiarity. Take "New Apartment," from Lennox's debut album Shea Butter Baby; the emotion and conviction in her spirited harmonies would suggest she's singing about love gone wrong, but it’s actually a song about the joys of getting her first solo apartment. It’s a very particular happiness that many can connect to, and she highlights the little things that make having your own spot so special: walking around butt naked, letting dirty dishes sit for as long as you please, being able to kick people out — the list goes on. -- LB

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Yves Tumor, “Applaud” [ft. Hirakish and Napolian]

One of the most potent experimental songwriters of the millennium, Yves Tumor extended his talent for collage into hip-hop this year with “Applaud.” Records scratches grind next to percussion that rattles like rusty chains, as Tumor embodies late 90’s R&B with the spirit of Bowie. As with everything Tumor makes, the yearning at the center of “Applaud” is imbued with divinity like a mural painted on the ceiling of a basement club. -- JD

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HTRK, “New Year’s Eve”

Since their earliest days as a band, HTRK — the Melbourne duo of Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang — have been clouded by a kind of darkness. What a delightful surprise, then, when Venus In Leo — the duo’s first album since 2014’s dense and cultishly beloved Psychic 9-5 Club — turned out to be a delicate, spiritually freed departure from their haunted earlier work. Built with airier arrangements and more live instruments, Venus In Leo is a record about understanding and coming to terms with your past and the tiny moments that changed you irrevocably, and no song on Venus In Leo does this better than “New Year’s Eve,” the album’s striking final track. Described by the band as “a Justin Bieber song,” “New Year’s Eve” features Standish singing about a recalled party experience: “Could I kiss you at midnight, and we could hang out sometime? When I’m back from holiday.” It’s innocent and earnest, and doesn’t try to couch its emotionality in verbose language. Like much of Venus In Leo, it's simple, spare, pure, and deeply affecting. -- SD

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Sleater-Kinney, “Can I Go On”

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It’s hard to see what some fans and critics found so shocking about Sleater-Kinney’s ninth studio album The Center Won’t Hold, which was a little shinier and poppier and a little less outwardly frantic — all to be expected from Annie Clark’s role as producer. But Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker (now sadly without the irreplaceable Janet Weiss) remain incisive songwriters, and “Can I Go On,” like so much of the album, can hold its own in the band’s formidable catalog. The nihilistic singalong chorus, block-color major chords, and “Modern Girl”-esque forced smile all brush up against Brownstein’s perma-snarl, producing a sarcasm that is, after 25 years, still uniquelly Sleater-Kinney’s. Go see them live while you can. -- ARR

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Ariana Grande — “ghostin”

It’s impressive that Ariana Grande managed to deliver Sweetener and thank u, next within six months of each other. Add to that everything she went through in that time and the fact that those quickly-released, trauma-borne records included songs like “ghostin’,” and the whole thing begins to seem vaguely impossible. “ghostin’”s glossy synths and reverb-heavy vocals point to a kind of coldness, but in reality it's the most empathic song Grande has ever made. Like an inversion of “thank u, next’”s sunny empowerment talk, “ghostin’” finds Grande at a loss for how to keep going, haunted by her love for an ex. “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again,” goes the song’s unusually understated chorus, an astonishingly vulnerable sentiment that, even after thank u, next’s many beautifully coined lyrics about sadness, hits hard. -- SD

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Burna Boy, "Spiritual"

Carrying out the message of a divine power is not a new concept for Burna Boy. Throughout his career, he's acknowledged that his life is guided by something deeper; “Spiritual,” which closes out his stellar fourth album African Giant, may be his greatest attempt to convey that feeling to date. Over Kel P's stuttering drums and ascending synth burps, Burna’s modulated harmonies bolster the metaphysical power that he, people close to him, and Black people at large possess. In an interview with the FADER earlier this year, he said that "Spiritual" came from a naturally peaceful and aware place, and the song closes with an excerpt from Burna’s mom accepting his award for Best International Act at this year’s BET Awards: “Every Black person should please remember that you were Africans before you became anything else.” That message of the global African diaspora needing to come together for our own benefit is what makes “Spiritual,” as well as African Giant as a whole, such a nourishing listen. -- LB

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Megan Thee Stallion, "Cash Shit" [ft. DaBaby]

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In a year where both Megan Thee Stallion and DaBaby had meteoric rises and more than a handful of tracks to justify their ascent, it’s appropriate to highlight when those paths converged. “Cash Shit” from Megan’s Fever tape earlier this year is tailor-made for what both artists do best: unbridled fun and enough IG-caption material to last for months. It seems like a long shot at this stage, but “Cash Shit” begs the question: just how amazing would a joint EP be from rap’s two favorite new superstars? -- LB

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Squash & Vybz Kartel, "Beat Dem Bad"

Considering Vybz Kartel's consistent ties to hit songs, it’s easy to forget that the dancehall GOAT has been in prison for the past eight years on murder charges. But what Kartel somehow continues to do well is keep his eyes and ears to the street while helping push the genre forward. His biggest 2019 highlight was this collaboration with Squash, a Montego Bay native and the leader of dancehall’s hottest collective The 6ixx; “Beat Dem Bad” is a meeting of intergenerational bosses as Kartel and Squash nimbly let off bars over sharp 808s. If you have a love for dancehall and lyrical acrobatics, look no further than this tune. -- LB

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Ariana Grande, “7 rings”

After a tumultuous 2017, Ariana Grande gave us Sweetener, a candy-painted album about love, gratitude, and taking care of yourself that found the artist experimenting with her image and her sound, giving herself space to enjoy her success. She followed it up with “thank u, next,” an undeniable bop about not regretting relationships, no matter how ill-fitting or emotionally toxic they were at times. Then came “7 rings,” showcasing Ariana as perhaps the most authentic she was able to be: dropping music like “The boys,” embracing her love of Broadway with a Rodgers & Hammerstein sample, and haphazardly experimenting with trap beats and rap. “7 Rings” finds Ariana not just enjoying her success, but flaunting and reveling in it, proudly sharing it with those around her. -- AD

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The best songs of 2019