13 Dec 2019

Song Crush: 13 of the best international songs of 2019

From Song Crush, 4:09 pm on 13 December 2019

Ballads for the end of the world, torch songs for broken hearts, political missives for everyone, and a glimmer of hope in them all. It’s Song Crush’s 2019 wrap of the (international) songs that they’ve loved the most... and it’s pretty emo. 

Host Kirsten Johnstone is joined by Tony Stamp, Yadana Saw, Brad Warrington and Elliot Childs. 

Find the Spotify Playlist here

1. Samm Henshaw - Only One To Blame 

New single 'Only One To Blame" is the perfect finish to an amazing year for UK soul artist Samm Henshaw.  After releasing two singles 'The World is Mine' and 'Church' featuring EARTHGANG earlier this year to rave reviews, the smooth South London singer/songwriter returns with a third single about self-reflection, confronting mistakes made in his past relationship, learning from them and remaining positive for the future. This tune is a vibe and I think 2020 will be a big year for Samm Henshaw. Hopefully we will see an album. Sticky

2. Tyler, The Creator - Earfquake 

IGOR, the fifth studio album of former Odd Future frontman Tyler, The Creator continues in the emotional and tender exploration of matters of the heart that he began with 2017’s Flower Boy. It’s textbook Tyler with wibbly, wobbly honking synths, pitched up vocals and a sprinkling of soul crooning from Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson. This song gets a lot of singalong airtime in my household – especially the refrain “don’t leave/ it’s my fault”. Tyler makes being an emo, romantic failure okay. YS

3. Weyes Blood - Wild Time 

On Natalie Merring’s fourth album as Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising, she grappled with a litany of modern problems, including life in the shadow of climate change. ‘Wild Time’s swooping, gorgeous arrangements were an album high point, but the focus as always is on Merring’s startlingly pure voice. It’s a song that wrestles with dark topics but ends on a note of wry optimism: “don’t cry - it’s a wild time to be alive”. TS

4. Lana Del Rey - The Greatest

Lana Del Rey her fifth album Norman F***ing Rockwell, her strongest and most cohesive work yet. There are no sonic surprises on this album, it’s all pretty mid-tempo, mainly acoustic but timeless, musically. But lyrically, she Timestamps it with multitudes of people in musical and art history that are important to her, from the mid-20th century to present day icons like Kanye. With vernacular like ‘lit’, ‘wasted’ and a generous dose of cussing, she’s a 21st century pop culture vulture.  

2019 was the year a lot of us experienced some level of climate change anxiety, and ‘The Greatest’, Lana’s dystopian kiss-off to the earth, a last slow dance, is packed with great one liners and references. It’s ironic, cynical, but a sincere ballad at the same time. KJ 

5. Michael Kiwanuka - You Ain't The Problem

A relative late comer to my Best Albums of 2019 list, but one that ranks high. Michael Kiwanuka’s third album, simply titled Kiwanuka, is the sound of a man strengthening his already steady footing as a songwriter and musician. Kiwanuka’s songs have taken on a more political bent lately as he examines the world and his place in it, like so many of the 60’s and 70’s artists whose music has been such an influence on him. It’s hard to pick a favourite track from Kiwanuka, but ‘You Ain’t The Problem’ stands out as capturing Kiwanuka’s ability as an arranger and songwriter as well as a lyricist perfectly. EC

6. NF - When I Grow Up

What a year for NF, his album The Search became his second consecutive No. 1 album and is maybe the album of the year for me. NF draws from his traumatic childhood, never shying from ugly thoughts or inner demons. It’s dark, real and emotional . ‘When I Grow Up’ has a simple message, don’t give up on your dreams even when people say you can't do it. Big tune! Sticky

7. James Blake - Barefoot in the Park ft. Rosalia

James Blake’s latest album Assume Form is the perfect antidote to sense of fear and powerlessness we are feeling in the face of structural, political, personal and environmental uncertainty. 'Barefoot in the Park' is spacious and generous reminder that we are all capable of loving and of being loved. The interplay between Blake and Millennial flamenco star Rosalia’s vocals envelope the listener with giddy, dream-like transcendent state love can incite in us. Assume Form has resonated deeply with me in that it is a reminder and an emphatic call to love courageously, deeply and without fear. And we can all do with that now. YS

8. Kate Tempest - People’s Faces 

The British spoken word artist softened somewhat on her third album Book of Traps and Lessons, reflecting on love and lust alongside topics like racist cops and austerity Britain. Co-producer Rick Rubin’s influence can possibly be heard in the minimalism of the arrangements - there are very few beats to be found here, with more of an emphasis on piano, strings and brass. ‘People’s Faces’ ends the album on a particularly poignant note, with Tempest finding solace among her fellow Londoners; not a faceless mass but individuals with hopes, dreams and problems of their own. TS

9. Big Thief - Cattails

Big Thief are an incredibly prolific folk-rock band - they released an album in 2016, 2017, a few solo albums in 2018, and then two albums as a band this year - firstly U.F.O.F and then it’s sister album Two Hands.  

The band completely wrap their sounds around and through singer/guitarist Adrienne Lenker’s intricate images, which draw on her childhood as a cult escapee, and the intriguing characters in her family. ‘Cattails’ is a repetitive, circular and meditative travelogue about going to visit her late great grandmother, with beautiful lyrics like “And I find you there in your country flair / Middle of the river in a lawn chair / With your wrinkled hands and your silver hair / Leaving here soon and you know where”

But the reason I love it is where the song opens out, from porch jam to the piano tumbling in and a mandocello hurtling it to the finish line, though I never want it to end. KJ

10. O.B.F. & Nazamba - The Hills 

Jamaican poet Nazamba aka Wild Life teamed up with French dub producers O.B.F to release his self-titled album this year. The lead single ‘The Hills’ is a story about the hills of Jamaica as an ‘escape room’ where the dread flees to get away from Babylon to smoke ganjah and relax away from the rat race. Heavy bass provided by O.B.F will have sub woofers working overtime, beautifully sung chorus by reggae veteran Vinval Thompson is the prefect contrast to the deep gruff delivery of Nazamba. This ones been on 'high' rotation. Sticky

11. Chaka Khan - Hello Happiness

This veteran funk queen returned this year with a small bundle of dancefloor anthems, including this one - and with the world going to hell in a handbasket, Chaka Khan belts out the antidote to it all “If you're feelin' unsure / I've got your cure / This music is yours / And this beat is mine” YS

12 Lower Dens - Young Republicans

This American outfit have never shied away from political commentary, but 'Young Republicans' is the most direct they’ve ever been. “At last the world is burning” sings Jana Hunter, in character as the titular Republican, rejoicing that unfettered capitalism has brought the earth to the brink of destruction. It’s a furious message in a gorgeous package, especially when Hunter’s voice soars in a chorus that is, even by this band’s excellent standards, thoroughly rousing. TS

13. Kelsey Lu - Due West  

Kelsey Lu is a classically trained cellist, a collaborator of Solange, Blood Orange, and Father John Misty but boy, she’s got vocal chops too. This song ‘Due West’, produced by Skrillix, is one of the most perfect, addictive pop songs I’ve heard this year. It tracks her migration from crowded New York to the sunshine, space, and freedom of California - and you can hear that freedom in her velvety voice. KJ

Here's some more 2019 stand-outs from other Song Crushers: 

Waveney Russ

Faye Webster - Pigeon

Faye Webster sent a note strapped to a carrier pigeon from Atlanta to her boyfriend’s house in Australia. The romantic gesture resulted in this nostalgic, dreamy tune capturing her uncertainty as to whether or not he received the message. Atlanta Millionaires Club was my favourite release of 2019 in June and remains on top come December.

Okay Kaya - Asexual Wellbeing

Writing songs that comfortably straddle comedy and sincerity is what Norwegian-born Okay Kaya does best. Hitting us with the line “sex with me is mediocre/but I can probably feel what you’re feeling” left an imprint after the first (and next hundred) listen(s) to this tenderly platonic ballad.

Sudan Archives - Iceland Moss

Los Angeles-based singer and violinist Sudan Archives envisions opulent natural imagery within the verdant metaphors of ‘Iceland Moss’. A slew of revelatory songs on 2019’s Athena are her best work to date. It was difficult to choose between this track and the lead single ‘Confessions’, an even harder choice after watching her perform live.

Orville Peck - Dead of Night

Orville Peck has assumed the, admittedly niche, genre of “homoerotic cowboy pop”. ‘Dead of Night’ is the most stoic and understated dish of cowboy pop we’ve been served all year. Feels like heartbreak in the middle of the Nevada Desert.

Angel Olsen - What It Is

When writing ‘What It Is’, Angel Olsen considered that “Sometimes the decisions you make are just you being a fuck-up, and it’s not poetic. It’s hard to admit that maybe it didn’t mean anything.” A hard truth, set to strings that sound like arrows and gunfire.

Jogai Bhatt: 

  • James Blake – I’ll Come Too
  • Little Simz – 101 FM
  • Lana Del Rey – Norman fucking Rockwell
  • Solange – Binz
  • Dave ft. Burna Boy – Location

Trevor Reekie (Worlds of Music host)

Constantinople & Ablaye Cissoko - Traversees

The ensemble Constantinople was formed by Kiya Tabassian who sings and plays the Iranian four stringed setar and teamed up with Sengalese Kora player Ablaye Cissoko.. spectacular music and exceptional musicianship They played Womad 2018 - fave track: Rêveries

Lucas Santtana - O Céu é Velho Há Muito Tempo

Brazilian musician - just a minimal recording of songs about nature, corrupt politicians and deforestation of the Amazon His music is saying stop, listen to the birds and allow nature to rebel against man. fave track: Ninguém Solta a Mão de Ninguém (feat. Jaloo, Juçara Marçal and Linn da Quebrada)

Coşkun Karademir Quartet - Oz/Essence 

I love this album… mostly instrumental - its like a movie soundtrack of a great journey. Coskun plays the Turkish Baglama and is accompanied by Duduk, cello and percussion… remarkable, often ethereal. fave track: Abyaneh 

Tinariwen - Amadjar

Tuareg desert blues band Tinariwen played Womad NZ in 2018. Recorded in a natural setting, one reviewer described it as being as close as you can get to the ‘soul’ of Tinariwen that also offers a view and atmosphere of the boundless desert ..

Oum - Daba

From Marrakech Oum is a soul singer  blessed with an intriguing style and voice… Inspired by Hassani poetry (Moroccan desert culture) and African rhythms

Rachel Morton

  • Mother's Mother's Magazines - Cate le Bon
  • Song They Play - Chris Cohen
  • Offence - Little Simz
  • Juice - Lizzo