Back in 2013, I set out to put together a year-end list chock-full of what I felt were the best songs that had been released that year. It was a novel and wholly unique idea that soon gained steam and now you see similar year-end lists everywhere.
Did I just take credit for creating year-end lists?
Yes. However, it’s 2019, kid and all facts are now open to interpretation.
So in 2013 when putting a list together, I chose to be guided not by what songs I felt were best but which songs impacted me the most—specifically songs that made me stop and take notice. I christened them “Hey-Oh!” songs and named 29 tunes from 2013 that fit the bill and have continued to do so every year since.
What exactly makes for a good “Hey-Oh!” song? Here’s how I initially defined it:
“It’s a song that when it came on incited an unsolicited, deep from the belly & soul Ron Burgandy quality “Hey-Oh!”– as in, “Hey-oh! That’s a damn good song.” You might not have said it out loud, but you definitely thought it. You turned the volume up, you danced, you pressed repeat, and yelled to no one in particular: DJ! ONE MORE TIME!”
The hey-ohs can be enthusiastic and full of life or they can be more restrained, complete with more stoic appreciation. Ultimately, it’s a song that stops you in your tracks in one way or the other when it comes on.
“Hey-Oh!” songs are broken down into four categories.
- Old Standbys Showing That They’ve Still Got It
Songs by some of my favorite bands and musicians that prove that they haven’t lost a step
- Let’s See What You’ve Got The Second Time Around
Songs by bands who came out swinging with solid debuts and were able to follow it up with killer sophomore releases
- And Who Might You Be?
Songs by new bands and musicians who broke onto the scene in 2019
- Enough People Talk, I Listen
Songs that have been talked about on the Internet, on the radio, on Twitter, on the whatever, and as a result, songs I found myself listening to
If you are so inclined, you can follow along with a playlist of this year’s songs.
So without further delay, “let the games begin.”
Old Standbys Showing That They’ve Still Got It
“Go”—The Black Keys
I thought they were gone forever. I thought we would only talk about The Black Keys in the past tense from here on out and those thoughts made me sad. They bummed me out.
Dan Auerbach’s solo projects were cool and all, but they never reached the heights of the Keys and like Red in Shawshank Redemption, “I just missed my friend.”
But they did it! The Black Keys came back!
This year the band dropped “Let’s Rock” and it did just that.
“Go” is such a wonderfully straightforward rock song in a world damn near void of rock songs, let alone guitar-driven, uptempo rock songs that (again, like my boy Red) made me feel the kind of relief that comes with catching up with your buddy after some time apart on a quiet beach in Mexico.
That’s probably it for Shawshank references but I can’t make any promises.
“This Land”—Gary Clark Jr.
Since Gary Clark Jr. first emerged a couple years back, it wasn’t a question as to whether or not he was our next great blues guitarist. He most certainly was. I think if there was a question, it was what he would do with his abilities.
Would he A) continue to bip-bop between styles and genres or B) pick one and run with it or C) just throw them all in one pot and create a new genre that best fits him and his talents?
On This Land, it seems like he went with the third option. His 2019 release features rock, soul, blues, reggae, and funk and (unlike with his past releases) all the genres and styles flow together almost seamlessly.
As for “This Land,” the album’s first single, it was very quickly apparent that Clark had some things he needed to get off his chest. The song plays like a hammer swinging away at nails and (spoiler alert) the nails are ignorant racists.
“Fire, Ready, Aim”—Green Day
This song doesn’t make me think about hockey at all, but I guess in some way it’s supposed to, as it’s the theme song for Wednesday Night Hockey, which was part of an agreement the band made with the NHL. That deal was announced a month or so ago and still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and it probably won’t make any more sense any time soon.
But that’s neither here nor there.
What matters is that it’s been twenty-five years since Green Day released their breakthrough album Dookie and they can still pump out a rowdy, barn-burning song that clocks in at under two minutes.
On their first two albums, Vampire Weekend’s songs were supercharged rushes of energy. They weren’t just full of life—they were full of their best life.
On their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, some of that vitality and excitement had been put on ice. Modern Vampires is a great album, but just an album with a significantly different feel than the two albums that preceded it.
When their 2019 release, Father of the Bride, came out, it seemed as if the band had continued on the course charted by Modern Vampires as opposed to harkening back to the manic energy vibe of their earlier albums. This happens. People get older, they mellow out some. Not every band can be Green Day, nor should every band be Green Day. Sometimes even Green Day shouldn’t be Green Day.
However, buried right smack in the middle of the 18 songs on their new album is “Sympathy,” which starts out with a voice telling you that they take themselves “too serious” followed by “it’s not that serious.”
What follows is a song that skillfully manages to incorporate both sides of the Vampire Weekend coin and both phases of their career. It’s expansive and vast but also percussive and wild.
“This Life” might be a better song and one that has more staying power, but “Sympathy” is way more interesting and definitely more fun.
“Clap Your Hands”—Galactic feat. Miss Charm Taylor
Repeat after me:
This is what fun sounds like.
This is what fun sounds like.
This is what a good time sounds like.
This is what a good time sounds like.
This is what joy, exuberance, having an effin’ blast sounds like.
This is what joy, exuberance, having an effin’ blast sounds like.
“Old Engine Oil”—The Budos Band
The Budos Band is a legendary funk band that occasionally fronts like a rock band.
“Old Engine Oil” is a standout track from their most recent album, V, and is powered by a massive-sounding horn line. But the tune is driven by the stomp provided by the rest of the band. I’m especially partial to the guitar parts. They sound dirty and grimy and I’m here for it.
I’m not a fighter, but if I were to ever get in a fight, I’d ask someone to put this song on before the fight started. The tune feels like fight music to me and if I’m going to suddenly find myself engaged in fisticuffs, I want the right music playing to really drive the point home.
No, really—this song sounds like it should be playing amidst roundhouse kicks and someone getting thrown over a bar and I’m not about to be persuaded otherwise.
“Black Shirt”—Rustic Overtones
Rustic Overtones have been in my life since the mid-90s and they never cease to amaze me. In the past few years, they’ve found themselves incorporating more world music sounds but “Black Shirt,” which was the first single off of their 2019 self-titled release, packs the same kind of punch from some of their younger, feistier days.
The music just rolls, whether it’s the bass and synth lines or the horn parts or the drums that just keep going even when they tap out for a few moments.
I also enjoy the element of mystery that surrounds the first fifteen seconds and how it lingers for long enough to leave you puzzled as to where the band intends to take you in the song. Then they do it again around the halfway point, and even though you’re now well acquainted with the tune, that jumbled mess of sound is persuasive in getting you to think that maybe they’ve decided to say screw it and veer off into in another direction.
But they don’t.
The song keeps chugging and rolling and stomping and stomping and rolling and chugging.
“Night Running”—Cage The Elephant feat. Beck
2019 is the year that I decided I liked Cage The Elephant.
I had been skeptical up until this year but then something changed. I think it started with “Night Running,” their collaboration with Beck. It then led me to be more interested and intrigued by their 2019 album Social Clues than I might have otherwise been.
And Social Cues is a really, really good album.
So then I decided that I liked Cage The Elephant.
And then I realized that I had actually liked Cage The Elephant for a few years because after doing some back-tracking, I realized I also get down with Tell Me I’m Pretty, their last album. They have a really interesting and unique sound and a lot of times people will say a band has a unique sound but they don’t always mean it. More often than not, it’s just fun to say.
But I mean it.
“Bad Case”—Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real
Do you miss Tom Petty?
I miss Tom Petty.
I like how the guitars in this song sound like something from a Tom Petty song and how the entire song gives off Petty vibes, and as a result, I really like this song.
“Red Bull & Hennessy”—Jenny Lewis
This song first caught my attention with the title. I was once doing some work in Detroit, became buddies with some locals and those locals had a fondness for Red Bull and Hennessy. I had never tried to put the two together, but you know, when in Rome.
Without reading too much into the situation, I’ve steered clear of the combination ever since.
But then Jenny Lewis drops a song called “Red Bull & Hennessy” and I’m interested. Of course, I’m also interested because I’m a fan of Lewis.
In the business, we call that a twofer—a Red Bull and Hennessy if you will.
“Sing Along”—Sturgill Simpson
If I had been a spy in Berlin in the early 1980s, I’d imagine “Sing Along” would remind me of that time in my life similar to how “Red Bull & Hennessy” reminded me of my time in Detroit. But I wasn’t a spy in Germany at that time (or was I?) so I don’t have that kind of connection to the song (or maybe I do).
Connections aside, I love when an artist pulls a fast one on you and catches you by surprise.
Simpson’s last album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, is a genius piece of roots-rock gold and one of the best albums released during this decade. Yet instead of following-up his breakthrough album with an album that had the same feel to it, Simpson turned his truck down another road and headed in the direction of a variety of different styles, none of which could be even remotely described as roots-rock.
I still don’t know what to make of SOUND & FURY, but it’s not because I don’t like it. I think it’s more due to the fact that it’s complicated and requires a proper amount of time to digest correctly.
Long story short, it’s a weird effin’ album.
Let’s be clear here and acknowledge that 311’s last few albums have not been very good. At best, they’ve been fine—maybe closer to okay—but they’ve been nothing to write home about.
And while we’re being clear here, we should also point out that their latest album, Voyager, is not some remarkable return to form for them. It’s as forgettable of an album as their last few.
However, “Crossfire” rocks.
“Crossfire” rocks in a way that is reminiscent of the way their earlier songs rocked. It doesn’t rock as much as songs from their first few albums did, but it makes a valiant effort to come close and I dig valiant efforts.
“You Did Good Kid”—The Hold Steady
You wouldn’t be too impressed with the sunrise if it wasn’t for the darkness.
Craig Finn of The Hold Steady really makes you think sometimes.
“Waiting For Your Love”—Cold War Kids
Sometimes you need a song that starts with a “Whew!” and features a beat that you can’t help but bob along to and clap your hands to in your life. Doctors won’t tell you this, but they should.
On a related note, how come we don’t mention Cold War Kids when we talk about great band names? Well, actually, do we even talk about great band names anymore? We should. Great band names are like comets in that they don’t come around all that often, but when they do, we should drop everything, rush outside in our pajamas and acknowledge them.
My favorite band names of 2019 (specifically bands that released new music in 2019):
- The Heavy
- Major Lazer
- The Hold Steady
- Grupo Fantasma
- Free Nationals
- The Budos Band
- Local Natives
- Current Swell
- Preservation Hall Jazz Band
- Beach Slang
And yes, Cold War Kids.
“Then There Were Two”—Mark Ronson and Anderson .Paak
Red Bull & Hennessy, as has been previously discussed, were not a combination I had long pined for. Yet the combination of Ronson and .Paak was most definitely a combination I have wanted to see happen for at least the past couple of years.
They just seemed destined to work together and then they finally did and the results are the best kind of predictable.
If we’re making dreams happen, I also would love to see a combination of the Boston Celtics and sustained good health come together. If we could make that happen, that would be great.
“Middle Child”—J. Cole
Before “Middle Child,” I had always been aware of J. Cole but I had never really actively chosen to listen to J. Cole. I don’t know why this is. Maybe rappers are like TV shows these days in that there’s too many of them. I can’t keep up.
I had never listened to J. Cole just like I’ve never watched Flea Bag.
Now I have listened to J. Cole and I like this song. I’m not entirely sure why, but it’s very re-listenable.
And if you’re wondering, I still haven’t watched Flea Bag.
I’m working on it.
Given the weird and confusing state of rock music these days, I guess Tame Impala is a rock band, and due to their popularity and stature, one of the biggest rock bands there is out there today.
However, Tame Impala is not a rock band.
The Black Keys are a rock band. Catfish and the Bottlemen are a rock band. The Japandroids are a rock band.
Or maybe they are?
Who the hell knows, man. Labels are dumb. But this song rocks.
When Coldplay announced that they had a new album coming out, I found myself engaged in this back-and-forth where I kept trying to reengage with the band by diving headfirst into their catalog only to keep losing interest. I messed around with albums, playlists, and playlists of pretend albums and it was all to little or no avail.
The results when it came to their newer stuff wasn’t much better. Nothing stuck—at least not until I heard “Arabesque.”
I can say with 100% confidence that the song is the coolest and most interesting thing Coldplay has done in years. I love the Afrobeat influence in the song and, as per usual, I’m a sucker for horn sections.
Also, upon further review, I would say that Coldplay’s new album is a better than average headphone album and that listening to it on headphones might be the best course of action.
“When Am I Gonna Lose You”—Local Natives
Local Natives are just straight-up interesting. Whenever they drop something new, I have no idea what to expect.
I know what to imagine though.
I imagine that the song will feature stellar harmonies and percussion. How they’ll handle both is a complete mystery, though.
With “When Am I Gonna Lose You,” I was right.
I feel pretty good about it.
“Hit Man” Gang Starr feat. Q-Tip
Q-Tip’s got the “thing thing.”
What’s the “thing thing?”
I don’t know, but he has it.
“Pure Water”—Mustard feat. Migos
I just think Migos are fun. I think they’re entertaining and I’ll always chuckle a little bit when you hear a “hey” or a “who” or a “oh” in the background for seemingly no good reason.
It’s fun to imagine them in the studio when it’s time to do vocals and they dedicate a good chunk of the day to whatever the hell they call those specific background vocals. Like, do they even go in the booth to do them or is each member of Migos mic’d up with each dude just hollering out words whenever they feel like it?
It doesn’t seem like it’s backed by much intent. It seems like it’s just fun, which makes sense.
Migos are fun.
Even the word “Migos” is fun because it sounds fun and looks fun when you see it and this song is just as entertaining.
“King James”—Anderson .Paak
I have a friend who has a penchant for telling geographically relevant stories. For instance, if we’re near a lake or a restaurant, she has a story from her life that involves that lake or restaurant.
I mention this because each one of Anderson .Paak’s albums are named after cities in California that played a part in his life. So, like my friend, .Paak has an affinity for geographically relevant stories.
Of course, he also has an affinity for creating music that smoothly builds bridges between hip hop, funk, soul, and R&B.
My friend does not have such an affinity, but it’s okay. We all can’t be Anderson .Paak.
“As We Know”—The Ghost of Paul Revere
The Ghost of Paul Revere is a self-described “holler-folk” band from the wilds of Maine and one of their trademarks is their harmonies. They’re fantastic.
The music is great and frequently catchy as hell but those harmonies are just completely delightful.
I’m usually not a harmony guy but those harmonies get me every damn time.
Let’s See What You’ve Got The Second Time Around
“Longshot”—Catfish and the Bottlemen
So this section can get a little tricky or be somewhat misleading because with some of these bands and artists included, they have released more than one album. So it technically might not be their second time around.
However, if you have noticed by now, this list is pretty personal and (in most cases) influenced by my experiences and preferences.
Now, with that disclaimer of sorts out of the way, there’s Catfish and the Bottlemen.
Ridiculous name? Definitely. Really good young rock band? Also definitely.
Their 2019 release The Balance is their third album, but again, because this is really about me, I didn’t get into them until a year or so ago and because of that, I kind of just lump their first two albums together and, well, I don’t need to explain myself anymore. I think I’ve covered it.
What matters here is that Catfish and the Bottlemen are a dynamic young rock band and we’re in dire need of dynamic young rock bands (objectively bad band name aside).
“Down the Line”—The Shelters
The Shelters broke out in 2016 with a sound that had a good reason for reminding you of Tom Petty. They actually became friends with the late rock legend and he helped put together their debut album, even letting them record at his home studio. It’s like my dad always said, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
But The Shelters know how to rock, so regardless of how they broke out, I’m just glad that they did.
This year they released their second album, Jupiter Sidecar, and Petty’s spirit is still with them, although they’ve grown a bit since that first album. They sound more confident and self-assured this time around.
I would like to again just quickly mention that I miss Tom Petty.
The New Jersey-based band Pinegrove has been around for a couple years but they’ve never brought the meat and potatoes with them like they have on “Phase.”
Eh, they’ve brought the rice. They’ve brought salad and broccoli and (at times) they’ve brought a delicious pie.
But “Phase” has some much more of an edge to it than anything they’ve done up until this point. It makes me even more excited than I already was for a new album from them.
Grizfolk is one of those bands where you might not know their name but you probably know one of their songs—specifically “Bob Marley,” which came out a few years ago. “Bob Marley” was a tune that was just there and you could be forgiven for taking it for granted or failing to really take notice of it.
I didn’t actually look into who did the song until listening to it a handful of times and realizing I liked it. Then a few listens later, I finally did some light research into these Grizfolk fellas. I listened to their first album a couple times and yup, under the right circumstances, it was really good (and even under normal circumstances it gets the job done.
Grizfolk isn’t reinventing the wheel. They play whimsical pop-rock that has that “California sound” to it. Their 2019 album Rarest of Birds kind of only gets better the more times you listen to it, which is fun.
I saw Sinkane, which is both a dude and a band, a year ago at a beer festival somewhere on the Jersey Shore and really liked him/them. Yet when I got home a few days later, I checked out some of his/their music and wasn’t as impressed.
It was fine but just not the same. This happens. You see a band live and love them but then there’s a dip in enthusiasm when you dive into the discography because something is missing.
This year the artist/band released a new album, and unlike other albums of his/theirs, it immediately brought me back to that beer festival and reminded me why I liked the music so much. It is a light and breezy album that tackles heavy subject matter, a contrast that isn’t nearly as jarring or potentially hazardous as it sounds.
And I could bounce around listening to “Mango” for hours.
And Who Might You Be?
“In the Capital”—Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
This song sounds like a breeze.
Before you ask, no, I’m not high.
To elaborate, though, there’s something about this song that sounds like movement and sounds like it’s weaving its way through life. You know, like a breeze does.
It also kind of sounds like an uptempo Kurt Vile tune.
I also appreciate that Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever made a good band name out of two good band names, something that is almost statistically impossible.
I spent about five, maybe six minutes trying to decide which Lizzo song to include. I was legitimately torn between “Truth Hurts” and “Juice.”
And man do I love “Juice.”
However, I heard “Truth Hurts” first and if it weren’t for hearing “Truth Hurts” and falling head over heels in love with “Truth Hurts,” there’s a damn good chance I would never have heard “Juice.” As someone who has ranked his fair share of random things, I’ve found that I traditionally rule in favor of what came first.
It just makes sense.
You know, it makes sense in the same way that “Truth Hurts” makes you start bobbing your head and shaking your shoulders a little bit.
“bad guy”—Billie Eilish
Hi, my name is Ryan and I’m here to admit that I was initially dismissive of Billie Eilish and, truth be told, I was kind of dismissive of her for a while.
I don’t know. Probably because I make assumptions that are usually baseless and not totally grounded in any kind of facts. I just make ’em. I’ve probably made two or three dumb assumptions today alone and I didn’t even have to try. It just happened.
I would like to take the time to apologize to Billie Eilish because once I got around to listening to “bad guy,” I was in. I was so in and I was so down and I was so on board with this song and Billie Eilish.
I’d also like to give Billie Eilish the award for Song I Hummed the Most While Doing Things Around the House or Out in the Yard or Basically While I Was Doing Anything.
Congratulations, Billie Eilish. You deserve it.
“Time Flies”—Rico Nasty
That’s all I got here.
This song is fun. Let’s move on.
“Stay High”—Brittany Howard
I’m a fan of the Alabama Shakes so Brittany Howard is not a stranger by any means.
However, I would say I’m less than familiar with Brittany Howard as a solo artist, which is how she ended up in this section of the list. I know Howard can sing but I wasn’t sure how she would sing on her own as opposed to being with the Shakes.
Turns out, she can sing just as good.
Her album, Jaime, mixes up folk, soul, funk, and rock but “Stay High” is the cream of the crop.
It is just a flat out wonderful tune. It’s so easy and smooth. I love how it feels effortless and how it feels like a relaxing weekend morning in the middle of summer before the temperature rises and the tourists come out and it’s just you, a cup of coffee, green grass, and blue skies.
In related news, I effin’ miss summer.
Enough People Talk, I Listen
How did I hear about this song?
Well, first off, I’m happy you asked. That was very nice of you.
I think I probably heard this song from, hmm, I’m not sure. I think I just did. I didn’t make a concerted effort or set out to do so. It just happened.
I know my wife really liked it, so that could have been it. Or was it from an awards show? Maybe I heard Morris sing at the Grammys or something and it started there.
You know, bottom line, I can’t remember.
Good song though.
“Doin’ Time”—Lana Del Rey
I’ve been in the camp of appreciating Lana Del Rey but have not necessarily been a fan of hers for a while now. I think her voice is equal parts sexy and spooky, like if your house was haunted, but instead of scaring you, it kind of turned you on.
To be fair, that might be something that always happens to a certain kind of ghost enthusiast, so I apologize for speaking in generalities.
I actually went on a ghost hunt once. There were ghost hunters and everything. I didn’t see any ghosts but my buddy was pressed up against a wall at one point, and when I found him outside smoking a cigarette, he definitely looked a little shook, so I’m giving some credence to his claim based mostly on body language.
As far as Lana Del Rey goes, I think more people should cover Sublime, especially when they can put a unique spin on it like she did.
“Super Moon”—Dirty Heads
I live by the beach, and a couple miles north of us, there’s a town that has a summer stage. They have about fifteen or so shows a year and without fail, at least half of those shows feature Slightly Stoopid, 311, Iration, Rebelution, Pepper, and Dirty Heads.
It’s all about knowing your audience. People like listening to those bands in the summer so if you have a stage by the beach and are doing shows in the summer, give the people what they want.
Really the point here is that through this stage and their show announcements, I was well aware of Dirty Heads. I had never really listened to Dirty Heads, though. I felt that if I just went back and listened to Sublime, I was good.
And for the most part, I would be.
Yet Dirty Heads released a new album this year and Spotify felt that based on my listening habits, I’d be interested in checking out the title track. It was very nice of them to suggest it, and as it turns out, their suggestion was a good one.
“Super Moon” has a horn line that reminds me of the old soul tune “Vehicle” and a vibe that was screaming space western long before The Mandolorian came into our lives.
“Bam Rang Rang”—Beach Slang
It’s rare that a song title sounds like the song itself but that is EXACTLY what is happening with this tune.
I want to watch monster trucks crashing into each other surrounded by a ring of fire while listening to this song and I won’t rest until that happens.
And don’t worry, I live in New Jersey. I feel like stuff like that happens here all the time.
You just have to know the right people.
THIS IS A GOOD SONG AND I’M PERFECTLY COMFORTABLE BEING A MAN OF MY AGE WHO LIKES A JONAS BROTHERS SONG!
Like, so comfortable I’ll totally be cool with listening to it at a normal volume sometime soon.
Maybe. We’ll see.