From the Intercom: The 50 Best Songs of 2019
Following her meteoric rise in the last two years, Indonesian R&B songstress NIKI (Nicole Zefanya) is somewhat of a young diva. And there’s good reason for her to be–NIKI hasn’t released a bad song yet. Whenever I’m polling young listeners about who their favorite Asian singers are, NIKI never fails to come up in the conversation. So it makes sense that “Indigo,” one of NIKI’s many contributions to musical collective 88Rising’s Head in the Clouds II, gives the people what they want.
Sleek and flirty, “Indigo” finds NIKI in her most empowering song to date. Aided by sexy R&B production, NIKI earns her diva status tenfold–she completely commands attention with her boss bitch persona. There’s no wavering here: with confrontational lyrics like “You know I’m you’re type, right?” and “So shut up and just hop in / We gon’ ride in style,” there’s no doubt that NIKI is the one who is completely in control. Yes, it’s a far cry from the intimate “lowkey,” NIKI’s other certified bop of the year, but “Indigo” is the only song with the kind of powerfully unbridled confidence that we crave. She knows she’s the hot shit… and newsflash! She is.
“POP THE TAG”
A few months after Balming Tiger dropped the hypebeast anthem “Armadillo,” featured player Omega Sapien released “POP THE TAG,” proving that the reason why he was signed to the group was no mistake. Against all odds, “POP THE TAG” is somehow even more hype than the monster that is “Armadillo”… tapping into that same reckless “fuck all y’all” attitude with verses that are punchier, harsher, and grimier than his collaborative effort.
Remaining ever so unapologetically aggressive, “POP THE TAG” is a destructive Gen Z slammer that screeches with reckless abandon. Over apocalyptic, gut-dropping beats, Omega Sapien gives a show-stopping performance by spitting red hot verses about having wild fun. “Pop the tag / Imma fuck it up that’s no option / Slide in your wallet fam,” he gleefully raps, throwing complete caution to the wind. Later on, he describes his high night with the utmost care–complete with fiercely destructive slang that detonates on impact. “POP THE TAG” is a calling card to the carefree, high-spirited rebels who just want to have fun… and it’s a song that makes the rest of us want to be a part of that crew.
“On My Side”
How is it that the happiest, most cheerful sounding songs are also the most depressing? On his insanely catchy debut single under his new moniker, Toronto-based musician Peach Luffe (Jong Lee, fka Jong SL) turns his situational hopelessness into a hell of a good time. “On My Side” is the perfect example of indie pop cheeriness with subtle sad overtones that’ll give you the illusion that everything’s alright… even if that’s far from the truth.
But Lee’s got nothing to be worried about. With fellow singer and friend Eunice Keitan joining him on backing vocals and a full sounding backing band with him on the track, there’s nothing that he can’t face alone. “Maybe luck’s not on my side,” he questions again and again on the chorus. But after hearing Lee’s knack for scrappy production, beautiful vocal harmonies, and a killer keyboard solo that comes out of nowhere at the end, it seems like his luck is about to change for the better.
Is chic house music a thing? Naysayers would be easily convinced by looking no further than the music of Peggy Gou, whose DJ sets and house mixes exude a confident class that seems equally fit to soundtrack a high-fashion catwalk as well as a seedy European nightclub. This year’s “Starry Night,” Gou’s best song as of late, is no different.
Building off of a repeating arpeggio beat, “Starry Night” is trance-like, hypnotizing its listener to move to the beat. As the bouncing rhythm slowly takes over your senses, “Starry Night” encourages movement at a steady, cadenced pace. Further fueling the triumphant dance-track are sparse, poetic one-word lyrics that propel Gou’s song into dazzling movement. “Ocean, starlight, moment, now, us,” Gou sings, connecting the fabric of the song into something greater than it is. Fall under the spell of “Starry Night,” and let its rhythm put you into its everlasting trance.
On “Tell Me,” Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Priya Francis is hung up on her feelings.“Tell me how to turn this feeling off,” she asks. “Tryna not to waste time / When the time really ain’t mine.”
Throughout her sparse, R&B-inspired ballad is acute self-awareness: Francis points out her own faults of getting stuck in the same destructive mindset, the steps she needs to take to move on, and her own eagerness to put the past behind her. Yet at the end of the day, it still feels like she’s unable to completely shake off the looming thoughts that haunt her. Unshakable, then, might be the best word to musically characterize “Tell Me” and its universal message. Boasting a little more than a sparse, plucked beat and Francis’s own acrobatic voice, Francis’s feelings are able to shine through thanks to her controlled, emotive voice that invites you into her wistful headspace.
Though Francis is singing from a deeply personal place, for a brief moment we all know exactly how she’s feeling.
For years now, Raveena has been making soft R&B songs that glimmer and sparkle. Covering topics ranging from her own relationships to her own sexuality, Raveena’s rose-colored brand of R&B reached a high point on her debut album Lucid this year. Filled with angelic songs with topics ranging from spiritualism, healing, and earthly endeavors, Lucid proved that the Queens-based artist had much, much more to offer. But on the album’s best song “Mama,” Raveena decides to turn to more terrestrial topics–starting with her own mother.
A devotional ode to her mother and other immigrant mothers, “Mama” is a magical foray into Raveena’s signature style with a heavier purpose. “Who you really were before me / What did you lose? / I hope, nothing too soon,” she ponders about her mother. It’s easy to forget that immigrant parents used to lead completely different lives in other countries… far removed from their lives now. The sacrifices that they made and their forgotten histories easily get overlooked. “Mama,” with all of its glowing tenderness, is able to conjure up those feelings of appreciation for those strong women in our lives with the wholehearted love that only Raveena can evoke.
Throughout hip hop newcomer REI AMI’s social media pages, the musician describes herself as “hello kitty with a knife”… and that might be all you really need to know about her before you dig into her music. Despite only releasing three songs this year, the Maryland-based artist attracted quite the attention due to her off-the-wall production choices that casually sample strange sound-bites from real life. Oh, that and her ridiculously bipolar beat-switches that define her biggest songs.
“DICTATOR,” REI AMI’s third single, is the most robust song that succumbs to such tactics. In the first half, she’s sneering, braggadocious, and demands attention. “I am not your queen / I’m your dictator,” she commands. Armed with some slick guitar licks and a heat-seeking beat, REI AMI draws blood by channeling that ferocity. But almost exactly halfway into the song, that fiery dictator disappears and is replaced by a sad… toddler? The second half of “DICTATOR” transforms into an acoustic duet where REI AMI surprisingly ponders her faults. “You got me wishing I was dead / Cause you’re a meaniehead,” she accuses. Yes, she used the word “meaniehead” not a few seconds after she called her whole audience “bitches.” Yet strangely, it works so, so well. Duality is hard to pull off within a song, but she’s made it look oh so easy.
“DICTATOR” has us all bowing down and breaking down all at the same time. When’s the last time your favorite hip hop artist did that?
Rina Sawayama has had it! That much was clear when the hyper-pop singer returned this year with the no-holds-barred, reactionary “STFU!” –her first single since signing to UK label Dirty Hit. Fully embracing the hurricane-like nu-metal guitars and a whirlwind of pent-up rage, “STFU!” is a raucously good time in a drastically different way from her past songs.
Like the name suggests, “STFU!” is a song that speaks up against microaggressors who are painfully oblivious to the kinds of racist rhetoric that gets through under the guise of “relatability.” For Sawayama, that means frequently getting asked about JPOP, Japanese restaurants, and karate–as shown in her infuriatingly relatable video released alongside the song. Once again teaming up with longtime producer Clarence Clarity, “STFU!” still sticks to Sawayama’s pop roots, but invites rage-inspired release for the first time. From the cathartic chorus, shockingly innovative cross-genre mixes, and amazing production tricks (at one point Sawayama laughs and turns it into a vocal harmony) “STFU!” vocalizes what we’re all feeling in the most powerful way.
Sam Rui doesn’t need anyone to have a good time. And why should she? A self-produced, DIY artist to the max, Sam Rui has become an inspiration for R&B artists all around the world–quite the momentous achievement for the Singaporean artist. Years after the release of 2017’s Season 2, Rui’s debut album remains one of the best R&B albums out there–and don’t you forget it.
Though we’ve yet to hear if Rui is planning to follow it up with a sophomore album, her 2019 release “I’m Good” reminds us that she’s still hard at work creating relatable love songs worth throwing on repeat. Once again tackling the subject of heartbreak, “I’m Good” finds Rui flipping the traditional narrative of love and placing it in a modern context. “Seeking attention from boys on the Internet isn’t who I wanna be / Chatting up these strangers / Every night on Tinder / Looking for love / And still coming up short-handed,” the singer laments amongst a crisp, chill beat. But even though Rui knows that she shouldn’t be caught up over all of these things, she’s still doing okay. “I’m Good” is a confident testament to the fact that nobody knows Rui better than herself… and that’s fine (“I got my intentions all wrong / I don’t love me and that’s the / Loneliness that I’m trying to outrun”). There’s an overpowering sense of honesty that comes from being in tune with your own feelings and relentlessness–and Rui’s not afraid to let it all out.
“Free” (ft. Devendra Banhart)
Los Angeles-based musician SASAMI (Sasami Ashworth) is no stranger to the independent music scene in LA, working with many other rising local bands by contributing to their albums. But it wasn’t until her own self-titled album, SASAMI, that we could finally see what would happen when the musician takes the reins herself… and the result is beautifully destructive and innovative. “Free,” the best out of the bunch, is surprisingly despairing–sending its listener to a dark, grating oblivion.
Aided by fellow musician Devendra Banhart, “Free” sounds anything but liberating. Instead, it’s a song that is unshakably rooted in the past, reminiscing about a relationship that could’ve worked out but ultimately fell through. As SASAMI laments an inevitably doomed situation with cutting lyrics like “There’s nothing wrong when we both play along” and “We walked as far as we could go,” sadness fully envelops the somber tone of the track. Further adding to the destructive atmosphere is an anxious beat and a squelching guitar, truly driving home the point of no return. “Free” is one of the saddest, most tormented songs that came out this year, and it’s hard to shake off that emotional weight long after the song is over.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!