Welcome to the last leg of Listmas ‘19, here in *checks calendar* late January. Whoops. As you can guess by the title, today’s entry will look at Billboard’s highs for 2019.This list took some doing; I kept getting dinged by my own rule that only songs that peaked in 2019 were up for consideration, which eliminated things like “breathing” and “Youngblood” that were 2018 holdovers (a quick aside that shows how long we can hold onto hits these days: “I Like It” was the consensus pick for 2018’s Song of the Year. It ranked #69 [nice] on the ‘19 year-ender). Similar to how 2019’s overall not great, not terribleness made sussing out the worst hits of the year difficult, nailing down what was truly the best of this year also took some doing, but, rest assured, we made it. Let’s begin.
Honorable Mention: Polo G ft. Lil Tjay – “Pop Out” (#45)
The year-end Hot 100 is rife with “three minutes or less” Rap Caviar hits built on AutoTuned bars and preset trap snares/bass, but “Pop Out” stands above the rest. Polo G and Lil Tjay rap with a sense of urgency and loss that you don’t see in most of their contemporaries: they spin tales of their crime-riddled pasts, and it feels like bloodletting, even as Polo boasts about having nothing but $100s and diamonds. There’s a mournful triumph to the song’s slash and burn guitar and piano production, too, that echoes Polo and Tjay’s sentiment; everyone’s just in the pocket here. “Pop Out” is catchy and hooky, but haunted at the same time, packing a lot into a brief runtime, and for that it gets the HM.
10. 21 Savage ft. J.Cole – “a lot” (#42)
I did not think 21 Savage had this in him.
Granted, okay, I didn’t think 21 had much to him, and that’s on me. I never really got into his EP with Metro Boomin, and I essentially wrote him off when he steered into the “issa knife” meme early on. Between that and a lack of compelling guest spots, I just never paid him much attention (“Bank Account” excluded). But “a lot” is genuinely great. 21’s been around long enough now that this contemplative, “look how far I’ve come” rap fits him, plus “a lot” balances that with the idea that even for all his success, 21 still goes through a lot. His verses here are solid, and the call and response hook works better than you’d think. Plus, the choice to match 21 Savage, whose blunt instrument of a voice resists expression, with a beat this lush is downright inspired. J.Cole’s new rappity-rap elder statesman turn is a solid look, and he acts as a foil for 21 with a nimble verse that includes a prayer for Tekashi 6ix9ine (not great!) and one for Markelle Fultz (great, and, given his resurgence in Orlando, prescient!). “A lot” as a hit in 2019 feels almost counterintuitive: it’s a long song at nearly 5 minutes, and its beat is comparatively maximialist, but it’s just a good enough song that it got people to pay attention, regardless. Never again will I think of 21 as the “issa knife” guy.
9. Lil Nas X ft. Young Thug, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Mason Ramsey – “Old Town Road” (#1)
There are going to be lots of people who try, in some form or another, to emulate the success of “Old Town Road,” and they’re going to fail, because no one can replicate the exact circumstances that lead to this song’s rise, all of which, to me, come through in this remix. In the middle of everything is Lil Nas X, the kid who bought a beat that unknowingly sampled a hilariously obscure Nine Inch Nails track and rode “Old Town Road” to hitherto unknown heights from TikTok to a label deal as the year’s breakout star. You have Young Thug ,whose years-long genre elasticity, country dabblings, and overall rap weirdness laid the groundwork for “Old Town Road”’s eventual success. You have Billy Ray Cyrus, here to grant country industry legitimacy to a song that was initially rebuffed from Billboard’s country charts because it did “not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version” (the backlash to Billboard pulling “OTR” from its country charts is what broke the song through to wider audiences; “What if Billboard had just let ‘Old Town Road’ chart without fuss?” is already a great pop music “What If?”). You have Mason Ramsey here to show just how fast and how potent virality can be if it’s unexpected. And just on a technical level, that everyone here gets a chance to shine and the track’s still brief is a testament to structure and ability. Look, maybe you don’t like “Old Town Road,” that’s fine. But there’s nothing else like it.
8. Shawn Mendes – “If I Can’t Have You” (#29)
One of the many songs that “Old Town Road” stiff-armed from the number one spot was Shawn Mendes’ (making his second Best Hits appearance after being a Worst Hits mainstay) “If I Can’t Have You,” and while “IICHY” did well for itself, it didn’t rebound to top the chart like Mendes and Camila Cabella’s “Senorita” eventually did, despite being a much better song. “IICHY” borrows from Mendes’ white guy singer-songwriter brother-in-arms Charlie Puth’s bag of tricks by seamlessly blending styles together for one pop hit: there’s a little bit of soul, some trop-pop, a touch of dance, and the final chorus even features a breakdown, and these elements all breeze by so easily that you don’t even notice their disparate nature. If you’ve ever wondered what late day Maroon 5 would sound like if it was good, I feel like “If I Can’t Have You” is the answer: it’s slick, it’s unabashedly pop, but the difference is that there’s a beating heart at the center of this one. Mendes really sells the longing here without overdoing things, and his falsetto toward the end is a deft touch that makes “If I Can’t Have You” feel real. I get that “Senorita” has the name and brand appeal, but dammit, this one’s better.
7. DaBaby – “Suge” (#24)
One of the best things a song can do is just let its artist go, and that’s what happens with DaBaby on “Suge.” A top-down analysis of “Suge” doesn’t reveal anything special: it’s a hook-verse-hook-verse-hook shit-talker whose beat’s only defining feature is the (rightly kickass) gravity bomb bass on the hook. But it’s in the vein of “A Milli” or more recently “Bodak Yellow” where the point is just hearing a rapper sound twelve feet tall for a few minutes while just throwing bars. DaBaby raps with an “I can do this all day” confidence, and listening to “Suge,” you believe him.
6. Lizzo – “Truth Hurts” (#13)
So, at the top of this week, I went to a drag show with an amateur competition piece. The first contestant did “Nasty” (a very smart pick), and then the next did “Criminal” (a good song, if terminally long and slow for drag [not that I know anything, but c’mon, “Get the Party Started” and “Cut to the Feeling” are right there]). As the applause died down after contestant number three’s introduction and she took the stage, the opening piano notes of “Truth Hurts” erupted from the speakers, and the place went off like a bomb. I remember far less about the routine than I do the crowd’s reaction to “Truth Hurts:” the cheers, the dancing in seats, the fan clacks from the queens in the audience, and everyone singing along.
That’s the kind of power that “Truth Hurts” and Lizzo have amassed in under a year, the sort of thing that makes a song instantly iconic once it catches on. It’s a song where every part of it is memorable, yes, but it’s also magnetic and inviting; I can’t imagine hearing “Truth Hurts” and not reacting to it even a little. The musical bedroom is solid with that now signature piano intro, a wailing synth, and a concussive bassline, and Lizzo’s singing is emotive in all the right ways, and the lyrics are infinitely quotable from the first line on. Much has been made of the oddity that “Truth Hurts,” a song from 2017, blowing up the same year that Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You was released with its own promotional hype, but I kinda get it. “Truth Hurts” is affirming and cathartic in a way that’s singular, and it’s so easy for those traits to be reduced to sloganeering or hollow positivity. And people understood that and flocked to it. Now, let’s get “Juice” on the charts.
(As for the “Truth Hurts” contestant, she tied with the one who did “Nasty” for fourth. My friends in the competition took second and third.)