For those who haven’t been reading this column for its entire two-year run, the reason it’s called “RIFF Rewind” is because for its first year I listed the top five (or so) songs of each year from 1967 to 2018, one year per week. Unfortunately, then I hit the present and had to start coming up with a different column topic each week, which is way harder and thus less fun.
But good news! Time has passed. Now I can add one more installment to RIFF Rewind Classic: The top five songs of 2019.
Please hold your applause until the end.
To be honest, 2019 in music was kinda like 2019 in every other regard: Pretty much garbage with the occasional bright-ish spot of decency. If you like manufactured facsimiles of artistic endeavors seemingly assembled in a factory, terrible people bragging about how rich they are, or a willful avoidance of addressing the catastrophe happening around us so as not to offend a potential customer, this was the year for you! Also, you’re a terrible person.
Gary Clark Jr. — “This Land”
It’s one of the few songs of 2019 with something to say and a unique way of saying it. Genre-defying guitar god Gary Clark Jr.’s album This Land explored what it’s like to be a black man in the modern era. This is best exemplified by its title track, a defiant modern take on Woody Guthrie’s widely misunderstood protest song.
It’s a shame this didn’t have the same sort of traction as last year’s “This Is America.” It’s understandable to a degree since Clark doesn’t necessarily have the name recognition as artistic polymath Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover, but one would hope in this era of instantaneous communication that quality would rise to the top.
Then again, one would hope a lot of things these days.
Lizzo — “Truth Hurts”
Lizzo’s breakthrough to the mainstream is the best thing to happen in 2019 and it’s not even close.
It’s trendy to put “Juice” on this year’s best song lists, and I guess if you’ve listened to so much music from an analytical perspective it’s crushed your soul into a fine powder, so I can see how that would make sense. But for my money “Truth Hurts” is what makes Lizzo a breath of fresh air in our embryonic dystopia. It’s catchy, it’s confident and every single line is absolute gold.
Everyone should be just a little bit more Lizzo.
Lil Nas X — “Old Town Road”
I’m not going to defend “Old Town Road” to you. [Gokhman note: This is actually the third time in the RIFF Rewind column that Willis has defended this very song]. It got extremely popular for good reason, it’s a good song. It’s certainly better than Billy Ray Cyrus’ last hit.
The backlash to the popularity of “Old Town Road” is a great example of one of the biggest problems with this era. There’s always been backlash to popular things by people who want you to think they’re too cool to like popular things—that’s as old as humanity—but the latter half of this decade has taken the instinct way, way too far.
Now people don’t just dislike popular things, they hate popular things. It’s a sort of frothing, vitriolic hate that’s genuinely uncomfortable to watch. The response to this song, to both “Last Jedi” and “Rise of Skywalker,” to anyone who says something you disagree with, to anyone who said a horrible thing at any point in their life—to anything. There’s no mild dislike anymore.
What I’m saying is: I’m not looking forward to the comments on this article or the replies to the tweet.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard — “Planet B”
In my Worst of 2019 column I decried the lack of protest music and I stand by that. Clark’s song above is a rare example of 2019 protest music of course, and Bad Religion released a whole album, but overall it’s a depressingly small collection for times as chaotic as these. There’s plenty to protest if there was a will from the artists and courage from the labels.
So when I see another example I have to give it a shoutout, and that’s how a single from a socially conscious thrash metal album ends up on my list. This Aussie band—who also released a psychedelic rock album in 2019, by the way—has something to say and says it in the metalest way they can. And I respect that.
Babymetal — “Pa Pa Ya!!”
I’m a bit biased because I covered a Babymetal concert this year and it was one of the craziest and most entertaining things I’ve ever seen. Uncomfortable aspects of Japanese idol culture aside, it was amazing for the spectacle alone. The show had one of the most seemingly random collections of fans of any concert I’ve ever attended—and in this line of work I see more than my share of concerts—which was oddly inspiring.
Given the musical output of 2019, whether I like it or not I was going to have to include a pop song by a young woman with a carefully cultivated image, written and recorded by a team from the label for maximum marketability among the target demographic. If it’s between the latest from Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande, polished past the point of having any real personality left, or something like this that just doesn’t sound like anything else in the world, give me this every time.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.