To sum up the year in pop, this 26-song playlist begins with a trio of ubiquitous hits before moving on to choice cuts that might not be so familiar.
It starts with “Old Town Road,” the viral phenomenon that became an unstoppable force — and, along the way, exposed racial bias when Billboard removed it from its Hot Country Songs chart for allegedly not being country enough.
The other chart-toppers also have an outsider perspective. Lizzo struggled for years before becoming everybody’s favorite self-esteem booster. And Billie Eilish makes murky music for misfits that’s accessible to anyone who’s lost their moorings.
Big names like Taylor Swift, Bruce Springsteen, and Tame Impala are mixed in with music ripe for discovery. Some of it’s pure pop, and some is not. (Press play on the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the story to hear what 2019 sounded like.)
Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road.” You might love it, you might hate it — though hating it seems a waste of time. For $30, the rapper born Montero Hill bought a beat from a Dutch music producer. He added a few catchy, nonsense verses, invited Miley Cyrus’ dad to the party, and the rest is country-rap history.
Billie Eilish, “Bad Guy.” Eilish gets deserved props for making arty teen music that doesn’t cater to the conforming normals. On her biggest hit, she makes a taboo boast: “I’m that bad type, make your mama sad type ... might seduce your dad type.”
Lizzo, “Juice.” Lizzo was everywhere, flaunting her plus-size-body-image positivity, simultaneously twerking and playing the flute. Demand for more was such that her 2017 song “Truth Hurts" became a smash hit this year. On “Juice,” her enthusiasm is infectious: “If I’m shining, everybody gonna shine.”
Angel Olsen, “All Mirrors.” Angel Olsen’s fifth album goes all in on strings and synthesizers, with orchestrations that reflect back, and she tries to arrive at an authentic self.
The Highwomen, “If She Ever Leaves Me.” Brandi Carlile won three Grammys in 2019, coproduced Tanya Tucker, and co-founded The Highwomen with Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris. Carlile sings this song that Shires cowrote with her husband Jason Isbell, which puts a gay romance spin on the cheatin’ song tradition.
Tanya Tucker, “Bring My Flowers Now.” Tucker’s While I’m Livin’ is her first album in a decade, and it’s up for four Grammys. This soulful carpe diem meditation was written by Tucker with Carlile and Phil and Tim Hanseroth.
Tyler Childers, “Country Squire.” You can hear the holler in Kentucky coal country singer Tyler Childers’ voice. The title cut from his hit album, coproduced by Sturgill Simpson, finds the troubadour longing to be home with his honey in their trailer.
Bruce Springsteen, “Hello Sunshine.” The lead single from Western Stars pointed the way toward the winning Glen Campbell-Jimmy Webb California country formula that guided Springsteen’s best album in over a decade.
Gary Clark Jr., “This Land.” Texas blues man Gary Clark Jr. invokes Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” in this seething indictment of racism “right in the middle of Trump country.” His rage is palpable.
Mdou Moctar, “Ilana” The Tuareg guitarist, who was born in a nomad camp in Niger and starred in a northern African movie remake of Purple Rain, made a burner of a psychedelic desert blues album in Ilana (The Creator).
Charly Bliss, “Blown To Bits.” Singer Eva Hendricks lists things that make life worth living in a song that the Brooklyn band’s front woman started writing the day of the Hawaii nuclear bomb scare in 2018.
Fontaines D.C., ”Big.” The opening cut on Dogrel, the debut by Fontaines D.C., announces the band’s arrival. “Dublin in the rain is mine / A pregnant city with a Catholic mind.” The post-punk band’s show at Johnny Brenda’s in September was the most electric I saw all year.
Rosalia, feat. J. Balvin and El Guincho, “Con Altura.” Catalonian alt-flamenco singer Rosalia broke out with last year’s El Mal Querer. This pairing with Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin was a highlight of her showstopping set at this year’s Made In America festival.
Clairo, “Bags.” YouTube bedroom pop phenom Claire Cottrill makes her genuine talent clear on this Rostam Batamanglij-produced, superbly crafted tune that uses a deadpan delivery to devastating effect.
Faye Webster, “Kingston.” Atlanta songwriter Faye Webster is one to watch, a 22-year-old with three albums to her credit who made her name as a photographer in her hometown’s hip-hop scene. Her Atlanta Millionaires Club is full of comfortable soul-folk songs like “Kingston," cushioned by pedal steel guitar and horns.
Vampire Weekend, “This Life.” With his former bandmate Batamanglij departed, Vampire Weekend leader Ezra Koenig rose to the songwriting challenge on Father of the Bride, which is chock-full of perky, precise short stories in song.
Alex Lahey, “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself.” Good advice from Australian pop-punk positive force Lahey, on her energetic sophomore release, The Best of Luck Club.
Young Guv, “Can I Just Call U.” Charmingly earnest power-pop from the second of two albums of jangly treats — Guv I and Guv II — released this year by Ben Cook, who also plays guitar in a band whose name cannot be printed here.
Big Thief, “Not.” Following singer Adrienne Lenker’s gorgeous 2018 solo album abysskiss, Big Thief released two albums this year. The spooky, acoustic U.F.O.F. came out in the spring. The tougher Two Hands, on which “Not” is a standout, followed in the fall.
That Dog, “When We Were Young.” The remarkable thing about Old LP, the first album in 22 years by Anna Waronker’s L.A. pop band That Dog, is that they really do sound the same as when they were young.
Taylor Swift, “Lover.” The title track to the Wyomissing, Pa.-raised superstar’s eighth album is a piano ballad that’s a refreshingly relaxed romance for a change. Shut the door, turn off the lights, never mind the haters.
FKA Twigs, “Cellophane.” A delicate and brittle song in which the British singer and acrobatic dancer sits at the piano and makes her heartbreak sound like a harrowing, death-defying experience.
Megan Thee Stallion feat. DaBaby, “Cash S---.” A two-for-one treat with a pair of breakout rappers of 2019. Both are Southerners who defy prevailing mumble rap trends to get back to the business of enunciating.
Tierra Whack, “ Only Child.” This single from the Philly rapper is a clever put-down of a dude whose selfishness goes back to his spoiled upbringing, who’s guilty of turning her heart “so cold, I should work at Friendly’s.”
Sharon Van Etten, “Seventeen.” Add Sharon Van Etten’s name to the list of expert adult rememberers of teenage uncertainly, up there with The Replacements’ “Sixteen Blue.” It’s on SVE’s excellent Remind Me Tomorrow.
Tame Impala, “Patience.” Australian one-man-band Kevin Parker never got around to releasing the follow-up album to 2015’s Currents that he was planning for this year. Fans had to be satisfied with this disco-flavored track and another called “Borderline.” No worries, mate: The Slow Rush is scheduled for Valentine’s Day.