A track has the ability to say so much and equally not enough, but in the same breath it has the capacity to launch a career. The single song culture of today is built on this rule. Dua Lipa, Lewis Capaldi, Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Mabel and Camila Cabello are just a few artists that have experienced recent global acclaim off the back of one good song.
Our End of Year overview looks at some of the best underground gems and mainstream favourites released this year, the BSS team has rounded up 20 tracks for a whistlestop tour of music in 2019.
Track selections and reviews by Charlotte Holroyd, Jay Plent, Tom Haven and Annie Jo Baker.
Charlotte Cornfield – ‘Silver Civic’
A song so masterful in its subtlety that by the time you reach the end, you feel like you’ve run a marathon. The story unfolds slowly, revealing a lot of very personal subject matter (but equally very relatable to whoever’s on the other end), Cornfield describes the impact a person can have on another human being, the imprint that’s left behind after they leave your life and how one copes once faced with such an upending event.
The song impresses on how anything from an inanimate object on the street to the titular silver Civic could trigger the mind and remind you of that someone: the moments you shared, the places you visited and the time you spent together. It’s told from a state of distance but because of the intimately fractious nature of memory and human emotion, the experience of listening to ‘Silver Civic’ is more an in-the-moment telling of loss and the healing process.
Investigating unresolved feelings in order to reconcile with your past, make peace and move on—it’s poetically done and searingly unforgettable. Charlotte Cornfield delivers a masterclass, an intricate piece of life captured vividly through music and words.
Flyte – ‘Sometimes’
There’s something innately warming about Flyte and the music they make, it’s like the aural equivalent to a cosy Autumnal weekend tucked indoors. Their songs don’t need additives or frills the songwriting says it all, alongside talent that is certainly some of the purest in the world today. ‘Sometimes’ is an EP track, a buried jewel within a collection of dazzling highlights. The band experienced a new dawning with this grouping of songs, after one of their founding members bowed out in-between writing and releasing the work. So understandably there is an air of poignancy to each of the songs, especially ‘Sometimes.’
The track immediately sounds like a classic, an old folk-y storyteller with a mellow pop charm. Predominantly anchored by a woozy electric and a soothing acoustic guitar with Will Taylor’s rapturous cooing voice sitting gloriously atop, while the musicianship on this track is quite expansive it doesn’t draw attention to itself, rather it lets sentiment take the lead. A commendable trait.
Huck Hastings – ‘Hey Babe?’
Huck Hastings has always been prolific, yet for a significant period the music well dried up (half a decade, in fact) at least in terms of actual official solo releases, until recently. The sudden October unveiling of ‘Hey Babe?’ was a generous shock to the system, the track finds Hastings at his lyrical best and signifies a rebirth for the artist. It’s snarky, confronting and revealing, told in real time the lyrics candidly convey a reconnect with an ex (and no gory detail is spared).
The song leads with heart but this sentiment gradually chips away as we learn more and more about the encounter, opening melodic and righteous Hastings declares his newfound strength although a feeling of unresolved energy between the two is stressed. Animosity builds in Hastings’ voice as relations take a turn for the worst and even though we are just passengers on this ride, it’s hard not to relate deeply and wholeheartedly to the events unfolding. Honesty and bravery combined, Huck Hastings is a true gem of the indie singer-songwriter world. Thank God he’s back. Right, what’s next?
Spector – ‘Half Life’
As part of the London band’s sequence of singles this year, ‘Half Life’ brought something a little different. Drawing on familiar tropes but in a new way, Fred Macpherson sings about millennial fears and the passage of time. “Does it feel like there’s something you’re missing?” rips along an up-tempo groove and resonates in the most primordial respect. Whether it’s FOMO or you’ve reached a point in life where things are changing, you’re at a crossroads or you’ve hit an inevitable moment of self-reflection. This song will speak to those fears, those hopes, and those existential crises.
Spector songs often confront untapped, messy feelings in a way other artists wouldn’t (or couldn’t). And that’s probably why their music is so successful, because at the end of the day it all comes down to emotion and connection, and Spector do it in a way that’s unafraid of embarrassment, or pretence, or what’s cool at that moment in time. They’re a band that speaks openly, they have a sense of humour and they have fun with it. Sometimes that’s all we need.
October Drift – ‘Forever Whatever’
Representing the band’s first official single from their debut album, ‘Forever Whatever’ combines October Drift’s visceral qualities together with songwriting chops, and blends the two to create a sweet-tasting rock nugget of shoegaze, grunge and emo. The band has worked tirelessly to build a name for themselves, now in 2019 with a slew of notable credits on their CV the bigger picture is starting to form—and it’s genuinely looking rather splendid.
‘Forever Whatever’ delivers amplitudes of energy but also handles loud and quiet dynamics well. As a song that seems to pose questions about life’s purpose, pursuing your dreams, and the journey’s we take in our individual lives—told from the perspective of life in a touring band—it’s very effective without being too ambiguous or too specific, equally endearing in a relatable way and thrilling in a lose-all-control, head to the mosh pit course of action. For now, we eagerly await the fruits of January’s debut LP.
Matt Maltese – ‘Krystal’
‘Nightclub Love’ off of Maltese’s debut album, Bad Contestant snuck its way into my Spotify Radio early this year, and to quote the man himself “I’m obsessed and I’ll never love anyone else.” Hyperbole aside (sorry Matt, I’m in an open relationship with my music), Maltese’s output has been absolutely fantastic this year, and whilst there were a string of great singles dropped in the run up to his latest release (‘Rom-Com Gone Wrong’ and ‘Curl Up And Die’ are excellent crooners), by far the tune that stuck in my mind most was the title track, ‘Krystal’.
Backed by chilling guitars in the key of remorse, Matt mumbles over snappy drums about the eponymous Krystal, a woman who seems to have it all, and therefore doesn’t need him. She’s a Jack of all trades; effortlessly beautiful, talented in the extreme, her ‘eyes are first prize’. His forlorn desperation for her is both slightly creepy and also strangely romantic. The touches of falsetto female vocals in the track only add to the haunting quality of the song, and though it’s a simple song that anyone could have written, something about Matt’s intonation, his sincerity, and his restraint in not pulling some ludicrously over the top, exploding string-driven finale to the track only adds to the charm. Krystal, the album, was made locked in a bedroom after a breakup, and it sounds like it. Who’d have thought that feeling would be so euphoric?
Tape Runs Out – ‘Friends’
Tape Runs Out, a Cambridge-based seven piece, dropped perhaps the best EP of the year in Talking Through The Walls. A tour-de-force of meticulous arrangements and brilliantly cohesive songwriting, it builds on the electronic and indie flavors of their previous work, with stunning results. In fact, it’s one of those records that’s so maddeningly good it makes you feel totally inconsequential and phenomenally excited at the same time.
There were many picks to be made from the sharp six-track EP, but the one with the biggest earworm melody is ‘Friends’. Setting the theme of childhood slipping away and aging being an inevitable weight just waiting to be dropped on you, ‘Friends’ paints a picture of nostalgia. Blending shoegazey flavors with a box of sounds nicked from Thom Yorke’s toolshed, the track is tight, memorable and floaty. Though it ends a little too abruptly for my taste, it only leaves you wanting more, and the rest of EP certainly delivers.
Tyler, The Creator – ‘A BOY IS A GUN*’
Look. I knew it was coming. You knew it was coming. We both know it’s nothing clever or nuanced or original to have IGOR be one of your favorite albums of the year. But listen, we all know the truth: it’s so bloody good. It just is. The Grammys may not be giving it the attention it deserves but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna snub one of my favorite albums of the year from this list. So, to pick the finest flower from a bouquet of fresh roses, let’s just briefly gush about Tyler’s luscious ‘A BOY IS A GUN*’.
Tyler’s usual ad-libs and rough-around-the-edges production are present throughout, as is his trademark drawl, first teased as making a return (after the mostly upbeat Flower Boy) by the track ‘Okra’. But this is Tyler at his most refined. His most focussed. His most vulnerable. Is a machine gun sample subtle? Nah, but somehow, in a strange blend of soul, hip-hop and R&B, it’s as ear-catching as Tyler himself, and we haven’t even touched on the swooping pianos, shaken-not-stirred falsetto backing vocals, and Tyler’s ever captivating deadpan delivery of what is, essentially, a breakup inducing argument put to music. IGOR is an astonishing achievement in contemporary hip-hop and ‘A BOY IS A GUN*’ is the pinnacle of that achievement.
Porridge Radio – ‘Give/Take’
Like the pinging sound of a microwave cooking a bowl of oats to perfection, Porridge Radio grabbed my attention (and my affection) from nowhere. From a stark basement in Manchester, they set out their manifesto and had me hooked instantly on their gloomy indie musings. The perfect introduction to their sound? The oppressive, the obsessive, the operatic: ‘Give/Take’.
It’s a slow burner. But fuck, does it have attitude. The vocals, which start out husky and blunt, swell and yield to an overwrought emotion-packed climax, as the relatively straightforward backing becomes progressively more chaotic. Synths bubble away in the distance, the drums remain unphased by the protagonist’s downward spiral. The guitars and bass, whilst not exactly plodding, mesh in a lackadaisical way with the vocals, which sometimes sync up with their backing, and at others don’t, which adds real character, a call and response that’s comforting and unsettling. Everything about the instrumental delivery reeks of being fed up, tired, strung out, emphasized by the lazy (but winningly sly) count ins at the start and end of the track. And yet, the music itself never feels tired. It feels alive. It feels like a divinely rich exorcism. It’s a song that feels bored to death of itself, but trapped in an endless cycle of entertaining us, and I can’t get enough of it.
Talkboy – ‘Wasting Time’
I had a terrible time of deciding whether to choose Talkboy or Junodream as my final pick for this list. Both released brilliant tracks this year, that I’ve covered fairly extensively before on Bitter Sweet Symphonies (you can read about them HERE). However, whilst Junodream’s ‘Terrible Things That Could Happen’ was definitely one of my favorite tracks of the year, I decided that the honor of the repeat mention had to go to Talkboy, purely because it’s so damn peppy and upbeat that it bears being repeated ad nauseam. It’s the party track of the two, and WHAT a party.
It would seem that, unwittingly, my chosen lyrical theme for these tracks, and indeed for the best tracks of this year, has been the past, its impact, and the wistful feelings it creates. ‘Wasting Time’ touches not just on the general implication of failed time management, but also strikes a very personal chord for me. As a recent graduate, flung unceremoniously into the world of work with little to go on but my unclear ambitions, the song’s opening refrain “time waits for no-one, especially not you and me, spending our days wasting our youth” hit very close to home. Other highlights include the line, “got myself one of those jobs, watch as the hours go by, is this what everyone does to make it feel like their life ain’t falling apart?”; find me someone who says they’ve never felt this way about their work, and I’ll show you an absolute liar.
I spoke in my review about how Talkboy speak a modern emotional language, and I feel compelled to emphasize that point again here. We all hate work, we all want to fulfill our passions, and as much as it seems that Talkboy are on the road to making what they love doing their permanent profession, it’s fantastic that that fragility, that insecurity makes its way into their music. With this song, not only can we wholeheartedly relate to its theme, but we can dance to it with a big old smile on our faces at 5.30pm in the bar after a long day of bullshit.
pronoun – ‘sadie’
I honestly think I discovered pronoun via Twitter. She seemed like this smart-mouthed person with an opinion about music. My kind of person. And then she releases an album. I didn’t even realise she made music. And her debut album was the best off-the-cuff discovery I’ve made all year.
Spunky, rocky and unique in character. I really dig the whole album, but ‘sadie’ was a personal highlight.
The King’s Parade – ‘Mad’
I reviewed the ‘Mad’ EP back in April. I still remember turning on the title track for the first time. I was mesmerised. I could hear the power of every strum, every ripple in the drum skins. It felt like the singer was singing his last ever song. Everything sounded alive. It’s hard to explain. Listen to it and you’ll see what I mean. ‘Mad’ still blows me away eight months later. That’s why it’s in my top 5.
Pixey – ‘Colours’
I was unsure about Pixey’s EP when I first reviewed it. Then I came to my senses and I realised loved it. ‘Colours’ is the reason. It feels special. Every note feels necessary, every word was crafted. And when I listen to it, it sounds like the colour purple. I’m still listening to this EP, and I’m gonna find out when Pixey is next on tour. I have to see this played in front of me. A stand-out track this year.
Michael Baker – ‘Baby Books’
I had to mention this one. For me, it was the song I had to hear. My best mate lost his brother suddenly to mental health in June. I heard this in September. It was only then I realised how much his passing affected me. Every word Baker wrote rang true. I felt everything he talked about. This song helped me heal a little bit. No song had a bigger impact on me this year. That’s why it’s in my top 5. Thank you, Michael.
Nature TV – ‘Moonlight’
I think I started my review of Nature TV’s EP by saying: “I see VCR lines.” I still see them. I loved how retro these guys sounded, even though they’re not. I love that ‘Moonlight’ has got such a neat little bop to it. And I love the swelling guitars. And I love the come-and-go, not-over-developed lyrics. It’s super. This could come from ‘89, if it didn’t come from ‘19.
EDIT: I have just discovered they have released another EP last week. I have high expectations.
Halloweens – ‘Hannah, You’re Amazing’
Halloweens is a new project from Justin Young and Timothy Lanham, of success with The Vaccines, and ‘Hannah, You’re Amazing’ is a superficially simple but beautiful song. The composition is straightforward, but contains its own complexity, like something off Pet Sounds, actually.
Young’s lilting, purposefully imperfect “indie” voice has a definite power and capability apparent throughout the track. While “three chords and the truth” has its place in the musical canon, Young and Lanham have put forward more than that, and they have a talent, whether innate or learned, that distinguishes them from other indie acts. While there’s nothing new here, the strong vocal work coupled with delicate, spangly instrumentation make this track the one I find the most intensely listenable of all on my list.
Annie Jo Baker
Mr Ben and the Bens – ‘He Is the One’
I reviewed Mr Ben and the Bens’ most-recent album, Who Knows Jenny Jones?, a few weeks ago, and I not-so-subtly was in love with it, and this was my favorite track. The Kinks were my favorite band when I was a teenager, and while I don’t view them as perfect, or a gold standard, the Village Green album is deeply entrenched within me as a sort of Cartesian origin for music, and ‘He Is the One’ is very near ground zero—which is to say, stylistically, it’s not a direct recreation of early Kinks, but I feel it very near my soul.
There’s a larger story to this album, but you can appreciate the song without knowing the story. This track is peaceful—the kind of peace built on solemnity. It is sad, but not morbid, as gentle as a martyr walking to their death.
Annie Jo Baker
NonCompliant – ‘Promised Land’
I’m a sucker for music capable of creating panic, and NonCompliant is capable of that. I first heard them in a tiny bar, where they were playing the same night as a few other bands, and I felt panic, in the best way possible.
I’ve never been good at understanding the story told by song lyrics, always missing the forest for the trees, fixating on the poetry of an individual line rather than any larger narrative—“The sun is all we have/ My life is not my own/ Mother told me we are chosen ones.” I think it’s about a doomsday cult, or something like a doomsday cult.
In a fascinating example of form following function, or structure mirroring content, the back half of the song is completely instrumental, and completely repetitive, but instead of being dull or tiring, it’s maddening in the manner of extended theatrical silences.
Annie Jo Baker
Wolf Parade – ‘Forest Green’
There’s something post-apocalyptic here but I’m not sure what—is Forest Green something like a bunker fortified against the end of the world? There’s a whole story here and it’s one I’m actually very interested in, but the lyrics aren’t even the main attraction—the instrumentals are. It’s so intensely decadent—the mix of electronic and traditional rock instrumentation, like Berlin club music transliterated to a Bacchanal, as sweet and rotten as the scents of cocaine and decay.
“I only stay here for survival/ Every day is like the one before, it seems/ … / In Forest Green, the lights go dim/ The awful man was creeping in again/ … / It’s something that you’ve known since birth/ You understand this place is cursed/ … / But it feels like home, and I can’t stay long,” and then it seemingly, gradually changes genres: bit by bit, the darkness falls away, as you grow further and further from the lyrics of doom and gloom, even as the instrumentals don’t change. Maybe the narrator has left Forest Green.
Annie Jo Baker
Swain – ‘Fistful of Hair’
‘Fistful of Hair’ begins with the kind of sensual, rolling bassline that hits you deep inside, and the vocals mirror this—not technically virtuosic, but ideal for their situation. The whole Negative Space album shows a significant growth away from the almost Radiohead-esque sound of The Long Dark Blue. Here, patches of the vocals pick up an almost Peter Murphy or Brett Anderson-esque decadence, but with something all their own, something akin to a post-post-modern sincerity.
I think the lyrics tell of a BDSM scenario, but it’s not at all just about the physical senses—“Take a fistful of hair/ Take your soul and lay it bare.” There’s something about self-expression—something that’s the antithesis of depravity. After several refrains of, “Swallow me whole—I want to taste you on the inside,” comes a cheerful and kind keyboard bit followed by cheerful and kind wordless vocals and then the rolling bass disappears and the base sensuality is gone and only understanding remains—“You’re not alone.”
Annie Jo Baker