Justin Barney’s top five songs of 2019

Justin Barney’s top five songs of 2019

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There were a LOT of great songs in 2019, and let me just say, this is my list, Justin Barney, Music Director at 88Nine. I have a particular taste and things I like for who knows what reason. These ain’t the best, they have been my personal favorites and I would love to share them with you and hope they connected with you or connect with you in the way they connected with me. I just want to share these with you.

Ebru Yildiz Justin Barney and Big Thief Photo: Ebru Yildiz
My favorite songs of 2019

5. Maxo Kream – “Brenda”

Maxo Kream is one of music’s great songwriters right now. On most of his album this year, “Brandon Banks,” he tells his story. Born into dire straits Emekwanem Biosah Jr. in Houston, Texas, he looked to be clean, and ended up praying to the dope.

But in this song he doesn’t tell his own story. He tells Brenda’s. He takes the character of Brenda from 2Pac’s song “Brenda’s Got A Baby.” That character is based on a profile that the New York Times wrote of a girl in New York City in 1991. The New York Times did not name the girl in the profile. 2Pac gave her a name, “Brenda.” So, this song carries on music’s long tradition of call and response songs and it also has an archival quality to the song that is poetic in itself.

And then there is the story of Brenda. Her mom’s an addict. She’s a prostitute. She’s pregnant. And she wants to do right for her baby but she knows what they will be born into. It’s what she was born into. Then it shows the cycle.

The first time I listened to this song I was driving down to Chicago, tears streaming down my face as I listened to this story unfold. This is Brenda’s story.

4. Bill Callahan – “Son of the Sea”

After three musicians picked Bill Callahan’s album for this segment, I figured it was time to give the album a spin. Turns out, they were right. Bill Callahan’s style of songwriting is wandering and a touch magical. Sometimes it can seem like a riddle or stand up bit. One of my favorite lines from the album comes from the song Angela, where he somberly says, “like motel curtains, we never really met.”

“Son of the Sea” is kind of everything that I love about his songwriting style in one.  He’s got a touch of that mysticism, he implicated that he may be dead, saying, “Some say I died, and all that survived are my lullabies.” He cracks, a joke, talking about turning the panic room into a nursery. But at it’s core, it’s a ode to the importance of and his love for his family. 

3. FKA Twigs – “Cellophane”

I love sad songs and this might be the saddest song of 2019.

FKA Twigs, asking, “Why didn’t I do it for you?”

I interviewed her and she said she did it in one take. She sat down at the piano and it just came out. It is one of those songs that sounds like she said, fully formed and from within. Waiting to spill out, in great swells, as she sat at the piano, asking hat it is within her that can’t be accepted.

2. Shura – “the stage”

There are a lot of songs about desire. And I love those songs, but they are usually one sided. Desiring something you can’t have.

But the stage is mutual longing. It’s flirtation.

My favorite part of the song is, after building this tension through the whole song she says, “we don’t wanna dace, we just wanna ___” And then she doesn’t say it. You know what they wanna do. But it’s so tasteful.

Match that with a killer drum pattern from Liam Hutton and a part where this phaser takes the entire song and turns it inside itself as they are turning with desire.

The stage is flirtatious from beginning to end, and I am hanging on every word.

1. Big Thief – “Not”

There are two parts to most every song. There are the vocals, and there are the instruments. “Not” by Big Thief is my favorite song of 2019 because I think it has the best the best vocal performance and the best instrumental solo of any song of the year.

Let’s start with the vocals. My favorite song of 2017 was Big Thief’s song “Mary” and the thing I liked about that song was that it carried this vocal momentum. “Not” takes the best part of their best previous song and pushes it even farther. The repetition of what it is not builds and occasionally released like in the best moment of the song where she rips, “It’s not the hunger revealing” and her vocals break behind her passion. The vocals are raw and emotive as the band itself.

And then, at the emotional crest of the song, all that momentum and propulsion, all those words. It gets to a point where words are not enough and it tears into a swirling and emotional guitar solo that it never returns from.

It gets lost in itself and never returns.   

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