From the Intercom: The 50 Best Songs of 2019
Deciding which songs would be on our Best Songs of 2019 list was, in many ways, leagues different than it was for 2018. When I was putting our list together back in 2018, it was mostly a singular effort–I was scouring Spotify playlists, combing through YouTube recommendations and SoundCloud links in order to find the best songs that the Asian and Asian diasporic communities had to offer. This meant that that method was very reliant on algorithms and scant music articles from established media websites. In a nutshell: if I couldn’t find it myself, it wasn’t getting on our list.
Fast forward to October of this year, when the basis for our 2019 list started to come together. Throughout the year, dozens of hopeful artists and publicists had emailed me directly, giving us a vaster pool to pick our favorites from. Fellow journalists pointed me to their own recommendations–expanding that pool even further. Small pockets of Asian diasporic communities started to show up on our radar, allowing us to judge songs for ourselves directly from the source. This time around, it’s from all of these collective communities where we found our picks for our favorite songs of the year. Throughout these indie pop, rock, and R&B (there’s quite a bit of R&B!) songs that we’ve selected, we hope that you too will find yourself some new favorites!
– Li-Wei Chu
- Songs must have been released between November 2018 and December 2019.
- Songs that were released before 2018 must have been re-released on an album that came out in 2019.
- We’ve restricted our picks to include only five songs from our Best Albums of 2019 list (to avoid too much overlap), which will be out soon!
- A good chunk of songs were voted in by several of From the Intercom’s collaborators. Thank you to Clarissa Aben, Derrek Chow, Piter Balayan, Emily Gu, Jocelle Koh, Karen Jaranilla, and Jacob Ugalde.
Here are our picks for the 50 Best Songs of 2019, listed here in alphabetical order by artist.
When AIR APPARENT (Neil Sethi) dropped his dream-inspired debut album Color Dreams earlier this year, it was a grand arrival of sorts. Filled with candy-colored beats, rushing EDM drops, and booming starry-eyed hope, Color Dreams was an album that was sure to please many a young EDM raver. However, on album opener “Sorry,” Sethi taps into a calmer, laid-back tone.
Featuring vocalist Krysta Youngs, “Sorry” spotlights Youngs’s voice which pairs beautifully with Sethi’s production–producing downbeat music that coldly rushes through you like an icy chill. Dripping with teenage reminiscence, “Sorry” is a song that allows Sethi to focus on the equally important quieter moments on his album, scaling back and allowing his collaborators to shine. It’s perfectly tempered–Sethi’s production matches with Youngs’s flexible voice with splendor. For pop fans, “Sorry” is the perfect earworm for young love.
Alice Longyu Gao
“Karma is a Witch”
Have you ever wondered what would happen if Sailor Moon made modern pop music? Sure, Usagi might never be a pop star in our reality, but DJ Alice Longyu Gao is here to help us visualize that possibility. On the hilarious, irresistibly replayable “Karma is a Witch,” Gao dons a magical girl outfit and gives us exactly what we want.
Twisting future/hyper pop elements (think Charli XCX, Kero Kero Bonito, and 100 gecs) to her own cutesy sense of style, Gao’s “Karma is a Witch” is equal parts instantly quotable and “everything-I-love-about-the-Internet” in a kawaii, two-and-a-half-minute package. Where else can you hear a chorus like “In the name of love and justice / I’m going to punish you!” followed by bubbly onomatopoeic gunshots in the same song? As Gao prances around a delightfully pink battlefield of tanks, grenades, and switchblades in her music video, it all feels so absurd but strangely right. Even when she chides, “Pay me respect / Pay me money,” it feels like she’s onto something–who’d expect to find a millennial message amidst all of the chaos? With all of the off-the-wall weirdness of “Karma is a Witch,” Gao and her songs are undoubtedly one of the best things to come out of 2019.
Perhaps it’s due to the full-scale assimilation of trap-heavy, bass-boosting nature of pop music, but the sitar is long overdue for a comeback. In most playlists, the Southeast Asian instrument might have disappeared from most contemporary music rosters, but in the right hands, it can be breathtaking. Turn your attention to ambient/experimental artist Ami Dang, whose fuzzed-out, bleary sitar compositions will have you yearning for more.
On the sitar solo “Raiments,” Dang reworks the sitar into modern contexts, weaving in gorgeous textures that evoke psychedelia and warped realism in a way that few instruments can replicate. Backed by raindrop synths, Dang’s sitar is the show centerpiece that leaves a lasting, resonant impact. Though Dang’s solo is only a few minutes long, the effect that it has on its listener is eternal.
“Armadillo” (ft. Omega Sapien & Byung Un)
Balming Tiger, the self-proclaimed “multinational collective K-POP band,” (in the vein of 88Rising) has to be one biggest groups destined to make it big in the upcoming years. (I’d gladly put money on it.) Even though they’ve been around for about two years or so, the collective puts out mischievous rap songs that somehow effortlessly turn hypebeast culture into a sonic genre with ease.
On “Armadillo,” the collective’s best song yet, Balming Tiger debut their new signee Omega Sapien with explosive results. Paired with frequent Balming Tiger collaborator Byung Un, the two trade off hard-striking verses about hype-wear among a grimy beat. It’s funny to hear the two rap about clothing with such swagger (Fila, GS Shop, fake Balenciaga), but there’s an innate confident playfulness that makes everything they rap about hit 1000% harder. You know you’ve got something special when lines like “Spicy bibim boppity boo” and “Shounen with big dream / Search for one piece” get dropped like they’re the coolest things in the world. Flitting between Asian and Western elements with ease, Balming Tiger has a universal winner on their hands.
“I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus”
Few artists glowed up in 2019 in the major way that beabadoobee did (Beatrice Kristi Laus). How would anyone have known that that extremely lo-fi musician that created “Coffee” a year ago would later go on to rock out as hard as she does on “I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus”? Well, it’s happened.
Full-on stanning Pavement bandleader Stephen Malkmus, beabadoobee’s first single off the thoroughly enjoyable Space Cadet EP is rock-out fun with a bratty attitude. Gone are the mumbly microphones and quiet acoustic mistakes; instead you’ll find nothing but sneering charm and sarcasm in her new blue-haired phase. “I’m pretty sure I’ll get used to it,” sighs beabadoobee, before she rips into a cathartic, shredding guitar solo that already feels oh so right.
For beabadoobee, who is only 19(!), there are bound to be a lot of phases for her in the near future. But as for now, we gladly stan her just as hard as she does Mr. Malkmus. “I Wish I Was beabadoobee,” anyone?
We’ve already been aware that Toronto-based singer Brahny (Brian Han) is a soulful singer. In last year’s “Bloom,” he’s already proved that much. But in 2019, Brahny’s love songs are back once again with a glistening vibe–taking on a similar, yet twirling twilight tone. While the songs on his second Moon EP are just as fully realized as Fresco Time Machine EP and his previous singles, “Paradise” is a perfect encapsulation of Brahny’s warm, champagne R&B style.
“Paradise” is gushy and swooning, guaranteeing to charm its way into your daily mix. With Han’s sultry vocals (think a deeper Rhye), the night comes alive when they get mixed in with the singer’s slinking beats. Further charming his listeners with lyrics like, “Cuz I / Want you by my side / Could be mesmerized / Want your eyes on mine,” every line from “Paradise” is directly heartfelt and passionate. “Paradise” is a starry serenade that oozes with feeling, exemplifying why Han is one of the most underrated vocalists in the scene today.
With a freaky early-Internet aesthetic and homespun R&B tunes, space-boy brian mantra (Brian Shin) seems ready for the limelight. Not convinced? Look no further than “anesthesia,” (stylized “a n e s t h e s i a” for full aesthetic effect) one of mantra’s singles since his debut last year.
Against mantra’s laid-back, casual demeanor, it’s hard to believe that “anesthesia” is one about going to sleep and never waking up. I’ll admit that it wasn’t until dozens of listens that I realized the intensity of the song’s message thanks to the brushed-off offhandedness of mantra’s singing style. Disguising depressing lyrics as catchy one-liners (“Don’t let them wake / Don’t let them get me” and “I have a ticket / a one-way trip to a faraway dream”), mantra is able to show off his vocal talents… while surprisingly making the prospect of anesthesia (or even death) appealing. But while many others have sung about never waking up, mantra seems to have succeeded in making it sound like a rad time. “2600 miles ain’t no shit / Turn my frown to a smile just 1 hit / Teleportation don’t need a permit,” he vocalizes. Add to that the irresistible, scratchy DIY production and “anesthesia” is a bonafide ode to depression and the beyond.
Every once in a while, there’s a band with a song that’ll make you want to grin non-stop whenever it comes on… and recently, that honor has gone to CHAI and their infectious, joyous “I’m Me.”
Wholesome and undoubtedly kawaii, “I’m Me” is the self-empowerment affirmation that we all need in the age of demoralizing social media posts and depressing world events. Together, the quartet (Mana, Kana, Yuuki, Yuna) lay down the truth with cheerleader-like pep, reminding everyone of their own self-worth in the grander scheme of things. “I don’t know the world but I know me,” they sing on the chorus before launching into a full-on assault of uplifting messages (that includes running down a laundry list of sweet things like ice cream, jelly beans, lollipop later on in the song in Japanese). But the most important message here is to love yourself, and CHAI is here to remind you that you should never forget that. After all, “everybody’s special, guys!”
So how did “Honeydew” get its fruit-inspired name? Just take a listen to vocalist Ryan Yoo’s lyrics. “Tell me the truth / Honey do you feel the way that I do / You can’t rely on me,” croons Yoo. Although mentions of fruit only exist in passing (twice faintly on a beat breakdown as well), “Honeydew” is one of the sweetest, soulful love ballads to come out of the year. Composed of Yoo and producer Nick Velez, Common Souls is a match made in heaven. Together, the duo’s all-enveloping, embracing songs seem universal even though most of the lyrics draw from deeply personal experiences (see: “Arizona,” “Jasmine,” “VLS”.)
On “Honeydew,” those images are extremely vivid. From the “faded royal blue” sweater to remembering how “You told me how Los Angeles couldn’t move you,” “Honeydew” is a song that picks out the smallest details from a personal relationship and making them the most important things in the world. Building to a rushing wave of feeling from Velez’s extraordinary, echoey production and Yoo’s never diminishing-vocal ability, “Honeydew” is stunning–inviting you to reminisce about a relationship that you’ve never been a part of.
Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that it comes with its ups and downs. At some moments it’ll feel like you’re invincible, conquering the world together. In its lowest points, fighting with the one you love can be the worst feeling in the world. Deb Never’s (Deborah Jung) “Ugly” is a song that explores those tumultuous feelings of love.
A sparse piano ballad wrapped up in a hip-hop beat, “Ugly” confronts this roller coaster of emotions head-on thanks to Never’s lonely and expressive singing voice. As the song takes its listener through differing relationship changes through its chorus (“You don’t want me I don’t want you -> You don’t want me but I need you -> You don’t want me but I want you”), the musical production of “Ugly” transforms along with its shifting narrative. Within that three minute span, Never is able to completely take you throughout that journey from beginning to end. It’s a song that’s able to evoke those rise and falls of a relationship with nuance.
What begins as that sparse piano ballad turns into a clamoring of emotion–ending with a crescendo of guitar chords, a rising beat, and along with it, the end of a once-perfect relationship.
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!