Alright, part 2 time.
5. Ariana Grande and Social House – “Boyfriend” (#98)
You know, for someone with a slew of collaborations to their name, Ariana Grande rarely shines in hers. They tend to feel a little under-thought, like labels and promoters just throwing names together and hoping that the sheer starpower involved is enough to carry the thing forward (it mostly works on “Bang, Bang,” and mostly doesn’t on, say “Don’t Call Me Angel”). That’s not the case with “boyfriend,” her collaboration with Social House for their debut EP. Social House is a duo who’ve worked with Grande before as beatmakers; they did “goodnight n go” and “pete davidson” from Sweetener, “NASA,” “7 Rings,” and the title track for thank u, next, and one-off single “Monopoly” and while that rap sheet includes “7 Rings,” everything else she’s done with them has been aces. Grande and Social House have chemistry on “boyfriend” that pairs well with the song’s lyrics about loving whatever the hell your non-relationship with someone is or isn’t, but honestly, I’m mostly here for the melody and the vaguely “lofi hip hop beats to relax/studio to”-core beat. It’s just a good listen, and a good companion piece of thank u, next.
4. Post Malone – “Circles” (#62)
It is with heavy heart that I announce Post Malone has a good song.
Sure, Post has had brushes with greatness before, but they were based on his own inherent goofiness (“White Iverson”) or featured someone else doing the heavy lifting (keep reading, you’ll know). The vast majority of his hits are, in a word, bad, from utterly forgettable (“Congratulations,” “Rockstar”) to barely existent (“Psycho”) to grossly misogynistic (“I Fall Apart”). “Circles,” meanwhile, is just a no-qualifiers great pop song with solid instrumentation, a surprisingly deft melody, and a chorus that’s nothing but hooks. The real stunner here is toward the end of the chorus, where Post just leaps into the line “I dare you to do something” with this burst of confidence and vocal assurance that I haven’t heard from him before. Most of his singles have all the permanence of a puff of Axe bodyspray, but “Circles” is fully realized.
The other thing is that Post does sadboy better than he does braggart; this could be a misread on my part, but I always thought “White Iverson” got its charm from the incredulity and implicit sadness of Post Malone–an oafish looking white dude whose every style choice could be described as “unfortunate”–comparing himself to the man who legitimized black street fashion in the NBA. It was such a reach that it felt like watching Charlie Brown believe he could kick the football. “Circles” is less existential and more “guy and girl can’t make it work, thus sad, “ but it taps that same hangdog vein to great effect. It also seems like it’d be a good song to crush at karaoke. But, even if “Circles” didn’t come out, Post would still be on this list, because…
3. Post Malone and Swae Lee – “Sunflower” (#2)
Look, anyone who’s spent any time with me since December of 2018 should not be surprised by this. I fucking love Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, so much so that I did my first ever cosplay last year as Miles Morales, complete with a sunflower pin that now lives on my everyday jacket. I went with the pin because sunflowers are a recurring item in Spider-verse fanart due to how the song’s used in the movie: after a 2 minute, action-heavy introduction to Peter Parker as Spider-Man, Spider-verse jumps to Miles drawing at his desk without a care in the world. He’s sitting there with his headphones on, singing along badly to “Sunflower” until his dad interrupts him from the other room about packing for school, and listen, Tobey Maguire might have nailed geeky gawky comic book Peter Parker, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone might arguably be the best superhero movie couple ever, and Tom Holland’s every move might be focus grouped for maximum charm, but there’s never a moment with any of them that puts you as wholly and unquestionably on their side as Miles jamming out in his chair and mumbling along to “Sunflower.”
And none of that works if “Sunflower” isn’t great. As much as I carp about pop’s streaming-driven journey toward the middle, this is what can be great about music that takes a little from everything: you’ve got that hip-hop beat, lush piano, textured synths, and some guitar for flavor, plus an outright dreamy chorus. Swae Lee just radiates warmth throughout, and it’s such a perfect match for the production that you can’t help but hear Post Malone’s limitations when he shows up later (that Swae isn’t the lead credited artist on “Sunflower” is legitimately bonkers to me; this is his song the way that “I Love It” was Charli XCX’s). But still, Post does well enough not to detract from the song, and the duo’s efforts were rewarded: “Sunflower” tied the record for the most weeks a single’s spent in the Hot 100’s top 10. It’s just that good, and that’s not even getting to the Swae Lee-only version. I just love this song through and through; if I wasn’t trying to keep some measure of objectivity, this would be at number one.
2. Billie Eilish – “bad guy” (#4)
There’s this little artist who came along in 2019 named Billie Eilish, ever heard of her?
Probably even more than Lil Nas X, 2019 was Billie Eilish’s year. Honestly, I’m still kind of sorting out how I feel about her for the most part: to me, she feels less like an entirely new thing as much as she does the logical endpoint of years of hushy, minimalist pop, pop/rap symbiosis, and a pinch of ‘90s nostalgia (her look reminds me of nothing as much as end-of-‘90s cyber goth meets ‘10s The Fader and her facial expressions in promos call to mine Kurt Cobain’s disaffected stare). You throw Pure Heroine, Born to Die, and Yeezus in a stew together and dye its bangs, and you’ve got most of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? The album does it’s thing well, but I sometimes feel like its mastery over aesthetic does more than some of the songs (this is something that plagues artists like Lana Del Rey and The Weeknd every now and then, but is also a point in Del Rey, The Weeknd, and Eilish’s favor because aesthetic mastery’s just as necessary as like, good songwriting). Alternatively, it could just be not for me.
All that said, “bad guy” unabashedly knocks. The production values are high, the mix is slick, and man, that bassline’s killer. On top of that, the song just makes a bunch of whipsmart interesting songwriting choices, like Eilish’s vocal layering, the decision to cut the bass at the top of the second verse, the “duh” button, the wordless vocal loop after the chorus, the trap beat switch for the outro, and it’s overall playfulness on what is and isn’t sarcastic. So yeah, Eilish had a slight leg up in the industry starting out, that doesn’t account for how a song that makes this many flat out odd choices tops the charts. Eilish has tapped into several different ideas that were all out there in pop, and she’s expressed them in one hell of a banger. I’m interested to see what she does next.
1. Sam Smith and Normani – “Dancing With a Stranger” (#14)
Party pop started the ‘10s with a bang. If we wind the clock back, the early part of the decade was littered with these speaker destroyers that weren’t just about parties, but these world-ending parties that went all night, never stopped, and demanded everything of you. This reached a fever pitch as club pop gave way to EDM, and after EDM went to gloriously cartoonish heights, something…happened. Our party pop became sad. You can chalk it up to any number of factors–inevitable course correction from “Party Rock Anthem” and “Turn Down For What,” a side effect of pop’s trend toward personal marketing with the rise of Spotify, Adele’s success, Drake’s success, Lorde and “Royals”–but by 2016, you’ve got yahoos like The Chainsmokers making wistful jams and a song like “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” which is straight up just about how hollow partying can make a person. The ‘10s became the era of “dancing with tears in your eyes” music, the era of the sad banger.
“Dancing With a Stranger” is an incredible sad banger. It has this propulsive dance floor groove, not just a drum but an actual groove, that pairs with those watery, sad-eyed synths and occasional bells. It’s also just a goddamn delight to hear Sam Smith on another dance track after “Latch;” I always get Smith’s impulse to do weepy ballads because their voice has this crumpled ache to it that lends itself well to balladry, but that same quality means they can bring so much more depth and nuance to upbeat numbers. Normani matches that quality in Smith, with both of them sounding forlorn and desperate to find a stranger just as a way to get over the person they’re hung up on. “Dancing With a Stranger” isn’t trying to party just for the sake of getting obliterated or purely to forget, but to find something new with someone else, and I like the symmetry of that. It’s the perfect pop song at the end of the decade, and an R&B dance track by a nonbinary balladeer and a girl group survivor feels like it has both eyes on the future, teary though they may be.