The Best Song of 2019 is “Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend

In the past, contributors have submitted top-five lists of their favorite albums of the year, from which we’ve usually been able to derive an official site Album of the Year. This year, our choices were simply too disparate. But there were a few songs that kept showing up, again and again, and we were able to cobble together this official mini-list:

The Top 5 Songs of 2019!

  1. “Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend
  2. “Juice” by Lizzo
  3. “Seventeen” by Sharon Van Etten
  4. “The Best” by Self Esteem
  5. “When Am I Going to Lose You” by Local Natives

“Harmony Hall” was a clear consensus favorite, so we had a quick discussion about why this particular Vampire Weekend song rose to triumph in this particular year.

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TRACK MARKS 2019: “Want You In My Room” by Carly Rae Jepsen

Back when Carly Rae Jepsen was really blowing up, by which I mean gaining popularity with some of the more idiosyncratic and picky pop-music fans and/or nerdy music critics circa her middling-selling 2015 album Emotion, I, as a picky pop-music fan and nerdy movie-not-music critic, found myself trying to explain why I liked CRJ so much. (I challenged myself not to cite her haircut at any point in this exercise.) I landed on this: She is old.

Not old by normal standards—she’s five years younger than I am, and I’m still young, right? Right?!—but for a pop singer having her big (which is to say medium) 40,000-copies-in-six-months moment, CRJ was kind of on the old side. She was nearly 30 when Emotion came out; even when her actual megahit “Call Me Maybe” took the world by storm in 2012, she was in her late twenties, and a full nine years younger than Justin Bieber, the beloved pop singer who gave her a major commercial boost. Listening to Emotion, I had the distinct sense that this was a person who had lived with herself—her personality, her disappointments, her music tastes—a little longer than the barely-formed kiddos hailed as ingénues and prodigies at 17, 18, 19, the normal (which is to say insane) age for coming of age as a peppy new pop star.

That might seem absurd, because Emotion does include as one of its highlights a song called “I Really Really Really Like You.” By most standards and by her own design, CRJ’s musings are not overly sophisticated. She captures crush-rush and shruggy-emoticon break-ups and fleeting empowerment; she’s not introspective and melancholy and wry, like Jenny Lewis (to cite another singer I’d follow anywhere at this point). But the craft of Jepsen’s songs is often sophisticated, and that’s especially noticeable on “Want You In My Room,” a cut from her hotly anticipated 2019 record Dedicated.

I get the sense that Dedicated received a relatively muted reception from some of the CRJ faithful—though anyone faithful enough to see her in concert could see the new songs greeted with appropriate rapture. It’s not quite as bouncy or immediate as Emotion, and feels a little more, well, yeah, mature. A little more MOR, if we’re feeling unkind. But the album’s many highlights reveal themselves; it just happens a little slower than it did on Emotion. And the great thing about “Want You In My Room” is that it’s not especially tasteful. CRJ kicks it off with kind of an exaggerated seductive-baby voice, giving way to sultrier-toned come-ons in the next verse, and then a robo-voiced chorus stating her desires plainly: “I want you in my room,” the voice I visualize as Robo-CRJ robo-sings. “On the bed, on the floor,” Regular CRJ adds. There’s a falsetto “I wanna do bad things to you!” and an invitation to “slide on through my window.”
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Will UNDERWATER be the last shlocky/awesome Fox genre flick?

Technically speaking, Underwater, the new waterlogged creature feature starring Kristen Stewart, is a Walt Disney Company release. Disney inherited it when they bought 20th Century Fox, which had been keeping Underwater safely concealed on a shelf for a while now (it completed principal photography back in 2017). The last year has seen several Fox releases that might not have been greenlit post-Disney, but Underwater represents a particularly Fox-like type of movie that will almost certainly cease now that Disney controls their soon-to-shrink pipeline. As Underwater disappears from theaters, so goes the sometimes great, sometimes shlocky tradition of the Fox sci-fi/horror thriller.

Most of the big studios have some kind of sci-fi history, especially now that astronaut movies are all the rage. But beyond Fox’s initial forays into the genre (how are The Day the Earth Stood Still and Fantastic Voyage not on Disney Plus?), beyond even their distribution of the first six Star Wars movies, many of their longest-running movie franchises are sci-fi: Planet of the Apes, Alien, Predator. Sci-fi had such a strong foothold at Fox that even its more recent flagship franchise, the comics-based X-Men series (which has one more offshoot, New Mutants, coming out in April after its own stay on the shelf), often feels as much like a Fox series as a Marvel one—sometimes to the chagrin of Marvel fans, who have come to expect a certain level of consistency and quality control in their superhero movies. X-Men’s mix of genre highlights and major disappointments very much fits in with the Apes, Alien, and Predator sagas.
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TRACK MARKS 2019: “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” by Taylor Swift

Track Marks is a recurring feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.

Given that she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, it should be difficult for Taylor Swift to don the cloak of the underdog. But among her many gifts as a songwriter is a knack for immersion, the way she can use a sharp hook or a snappy phrase to instantly pull you into her filigreed worlds. Lover is a massive album (18 tracks!) that was massively successful (double platinum!), but when “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” kicks off, Swift is just another shattered teenage girl again; she effortlessly conjures a familiar high-school dystopia, the modest drums combining with her slightly breathy vocals to yank you back to a time of adolescent heartache. The lyrics are characteristically simple but evocative: She’s ripped up her prom dress, she’s running through rose thorns, she’s fending off whispers from judgmental classmates about how she’s a bad, bad girl. It’s The Scarlet Letter by way of Mean Girls.

Of course, “Miss Americana” is more than just another of Swift’s teen-centric fairy tales, like “White Horse” or “Love Story”; it’s also a cri de coeur in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “Boys will be boys, then where are the wise men?” she asks rhetorically while staring helplessly at “American glory faded before me,” and her despair is palpable. There’s even a whiff of gerrymandering/voter suppression (“The whole school is rolling fake dice”), but mostly she’s just left helpless and depressed, learning of the election results (via a football scoreboard, naturally) and then running for her life. When the bad guys are exchanging high fives, all that’s left to do is paint the town blue.

Here’s the thing, though: None of that political metaphor is essential to appreciating “Miss Americana” as a kickass song, a finely constructed ballad that builds to a soaring conclusion. Swift is such a phenom, it’s easy to overlook just how skilled she is, how she approaches her work with sincerity and craft. It’s there in the spondaic shouts of “OH-KAY!” that punctuate several lines, and in the light piano that pops up in the chorus, meshing with the throbbing synths. My favorite part of the song is the bridge, where backup singers shout the last word of each line: “And I don’t want you to GO! / I don’t really wanna FIGHT! / ‘Cause nobody’s gonna WIN!” That sounds like surrender, but listen closer; after three crushing repetitions, Swift suddenly inverts the lyrics, promising that she’ll never go, that she’s staying to fight, that she’s determined to win. It’s a lightning-quick flip—from compliance to defiance, from desolation to resolution—and it turns this once-despondent ditty into a roaring battle cry. So sure, maybe it’s tough to accept Taylor Swift as the underdog, but only because—as this intricate, ecstatic song proves—she doesn’t know how to lose.

TRACK MARKS 2019: “Cheerleader” by Sir Babygirl

Track Marks is a recurring feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.

Everyone hates cheerleaders. They’re the popular crowd, the mean girls, the queen bees who date the star quarterback and occupy the prime real estate in the cafeteria. If you’ve ever felt remotely marginalized or uncool, you’ve probably wished them harm or misfortune at some point, if only idly. Of course, this conception of pom-pom-wielders as bimbos, tramps, or both is an ugly and outdated stereotype. But on the power-pop anthem “Cheerleader,” rising artist Kelsie Hogue (aka Sir Babygirl) nevertheless gives voice to those dark and disgruntled thoughts, confessing to scribbling graffiti in the bathroom stall about how “everybody wants to watch the cheerleader fall.” She’s on the outside looking in, and when she asks for your complicity—”I’ll kill my reputation if you promise not to tell / I’ll kill my reputation if you come with me to hell”—it’s as though she’s concocting some sort of dastardly scheme, grist for a made-for-TV movie.

But is Hogue devious, or just envious? As “Cheerleader” progresses, its light notes of electronica gathering a propulsive energy with a heavy bass and thumping drums, it turns into a kind of empowerment ballad, and not just about the extra in the background who inadvertently drops the prom queen. As Hogue imagines climbing to the top of the pyramid—wearing a skirt so tight it makes her bleed, and festooned with friendship bracelets that double as handcuffs—the song transforms from an angsty lament of isolation into a glorious fantasy of belonging. Hogue doesn’t want to kill the cheerleader, she wants to be the cheerleader; the bridge is a plea for your support, exhorting you in a howling crescendo to “Come on, cheer me on.” It’s so noisy and catchy, it’s easy to miss the intricacy of the mix: the snap of the snare, the snaking guitar line, the way the precisely timed rat-a-tat barks of “C’mon-c’mon-c’mon” sit alongside the classic chant, “Be aggressive, B-E aggressive!” (Yo Grimes, you hearing this?) It’s simultaneously shameless and triumphant, and as Hogue’s immaculate shrieks grow higher and higher, you have no choice but to join her cause. After all, everyone loves cheerleaders.

TRACK MARKS 2019: “Cellophane” by FKA Twigs

Track Marks is a recurring feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.

As far as materials with metaphorical possibilities go, cellophane has been more durable than its flimsy texture might suggest. Lest it have faded from your memory since 2002, John C. Reilly’s big number in the film version of Chicago casts him as a sad clown singing of how people “can look right through me, walk right by me, and never know I’m there.” But FKA twigs is singing about a different kind of transparency here: the kind that comes with the vulnerability of loving another person, of letting yourself be seen fully, perhaps for the first time.

FKA twigs has had a difficult couple of years. Following a very public breakup with Robert Pattinson, she announced that six fibroid tumors had been discovered in her uterus, forcing her to undergo an invasive surgery. For an artist of such lithe physicality, it must have been devastating, but she rebuilt herself in her typically idiosyncratic way: by learning pole-dancing. Her new skill is on full display in the video for “cellophane,” but she’s equally adept at expressing the song’s muscular intimacy when performing live, as she demonstrated on Jimmy Fallon’s show back in late October.

It’s one of the weirder pairings of artist and venue, which also makes it all the more remarkable to watch unfold. She starts seated on a piano, her voice tiptoeing out towards the audience. You can almost feel her listeners leaning closer, drawn into her singular vortex, the lyrics painting a portrait of a love doomed by the pressures a greedy public has exerted on it. “They want to see us apart,” she sings, the phrase fluttering like something about to be picked up by the wind. And later: “I don’t want to have to share our love.” Just because you asked for the spotlight doesn’t mean it won’t burn you. But she lifts herself up as she goes, both vocally and literally onstage, her great strength lying paradoxically in her defenselessness, inviting us to watch as she symbolically sheds her own skin. “THIS is how you flex on your ex,” says one of the YouTube comments on the performance, and it’s true. If you know they’re going to be watching, better make sure it’s a sight they won’t forget.

TRACK MARKS 2019: “Devotion” by Pure Bathing Culture

Track Marks is a recurring feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.

Mention that a band sounds like Fleetwood Mac to the SportsAlcohol crew and the reaction can be a mixed bag (you can separate the haters from the ones who are right by listening to this podcast episode about California music). That’s especially true when you’re talking about the Fleetwood Mac of the Tango in the Night era, when the melodies get a little more sugary, the lyrics a little less angsty and a little more new age-y. An artist picking up on those sounds in 2019 better know what they’re risking. The result could be euphoric; it could also be downright embarrassing.

For me, at least, it never hurts when the band has a “go big or go home” attitude about it, and Pure Bathing Culture certainly has that. After being unexpectedly dropped by their label with many of the songs for Night Pass already written, the band decided to forge ahead anyway, piecing together a record of heady ’70s bliss from the wreckage, of which “Devotion” is an early highlight. It tells a familiar tale of a reluctant lover, someone who’s reached out so many times and is stunned to find someone reaching back, supported by the sort of jangly riff that could slide easily between Hall & Oates and Prefab Sprout on any classic rock radio playlist (provided there are any stations that are playing “Bonnie” these days). While the imagery of the lyrics is all effervescence and mysticism (according to them, devotion “puts the stars in the jewels” which, sure, why not), the production from Tucker Martine, who’s worked with R.E.M. and My Morning Jacket, grounds the song, keeping it from spinning too far off into the stratosphere. Sarah Versprille’s voice has a similar effect; like the best elements of Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie combined she manages to sound both earthy and otherworldly at once. “She wrapped her arms around me,” Versprille sings with just a whiff of desperation, and “Devotion” does the same for the listener, swaddling you in a reverb warmth that’s not unlike falling in love.

The Mixtape: The Rise of Skywalker

The nerd core will be podcasting about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker soon enough (by which we mean, in a week or two). But in the meantime, with the movie’s commercial premiere just hours away, we made you a mixtape. Two years ago, we opened up a weird high school tradition to the world (or at least the audience) by offering thirty-plus minutes of get-psyched mix-em-ups, to be listened to on your way to see a Star Wars movie. We’ve done the same for Episode IX, and I hope you enjoy it. (You can also download the never-before-officially-released Force Awakens mixtape here.)

As before, there are general instructions and a trivia component. The instructions are easy: about 35 minutes before you roll into your theater of choice to see The Rise of Skywalker hit “play” on the downloadable mp3, or the stream linked below.

Here’s the trivia part: This mix contains a lot of songs and samples. Some of them relate directly to Star Wars; most of those connections should be obvious, even if you don’t immediately recognize their origin. BUT: the rest of the songs and samples (that is, the non-Star Wars majority of the mix) have something in common. What is it?

The answer is relatively broad, so bonus points if you can go into more detail using specific examples.

A correct answer will get you a shout-out on our next Star Wars podcast!

In the meantime, enjoy getting psyched for the movie, and may the force be, well, you know.

TRACK MARKS 2019: “Seventeen” by Sharon Von Etten

Track Marks is a recurring feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.

Some anthems announce themselves before you’ve even pressed play. You don’t call a song “Born in the U.S.A.” and not open with stadium-sized power chords, even if the lyrics they’re backing take the piss out of such nationalistic fervor. A title like “Seventeen” also conjures all sorts of associations for listeners both nostalgic and painful, but Sharon Van Etten’s ode to youth is ready to carry whatever baggage is brought to it. Like much of the Boss’s classic catalog, it works as a rock song and a reckoning simultaneously.

Van Etten has made no secret about how much an abusive relationship has influenced her songwriting, and about how uncomfortable this makes her, and much of her superlative 2019 album Remind Me Tomorrow feels like a conscious attempt to move beyond such narratives while acknowledging the impossibility of ever doing so completely. It’s a work both haunting and haunted, almost Lynchian at times with its slinky synths and narcotized soundscapes. It’s not always an easy listen, which is why “Seventeen” initially feels like something of a relief, rolling up at the album’s halfway mark like a car with its top down, filled with the people you used to be.

But if “Seventeen” looks backward, it does with eyes wide open. As Van Etten observes a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, her lyrics straddle the line between wisdom and longing, embodying both the girl’s anxious rush to grow up and the singer’s wish to shield her from what that might mean. At times, it’s as if she’s addressing to her own ghost: “I see you so uncomfortably alone/I wish you could see how much you’ve grown.” It feels like a distinctly feminine thing to fear: that your younger self would look at what you’ve become and sneer. But Van Etten refuses to sneer back. It’s why this song will last long after 2019 is in the rear view. Because whether you’re at the beginning of your next decade or the end of one, it’s got something to say to you.

The Podcast: Black Christmas Through the Years

The podcast isn’t always a vehicle for up-to-the-minute new-release movie reviews, but about once a year, around the holidays, apparently that changes. Last year, Ben and Jesse talked about Second Act; this year, ’tis the season for Black Christmas. A new 2019 version of the 1974 proto-slasher classic is hitting theaters this weekend, so Jesse and special guest slash podcast expert Becca took this opportunity to go through the Black Christmases that preceded it. In this holiday rundown, we look at the very different 1974, 2006, and 2019 incarnations of Black Christmas and try to sort through our reactions. Who will survive this holiday splatterfest?! (Becca thinks it might be her; listen in for her explanation of why she’s safe from horror-movie fears, at least for now.)

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast: