Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 2019
The next year we’re going to tackle in our Favorite Songs Mixtape Series is 2019. I have faint memories of it myself, but I’m pretty sure it too was quite the shit show (the photo above features what we used to call a "crowd" back then). Compared to 2020, it seems positively charming in retrospect. I realize this tape is a little late, with list season long behind us, but we were on hiatus at the time so we’re going to give it to you now. Here it is, once and for all, for the record: Pickled Priest's 26 favorite songs of 2019—in descending order for drama (one per artist maximum).
26 “I Don’t Owe You Anything” / Tegan & Sara
One of the best books I read in 2019 was Tegan & Sara’s High School. It would’ve been a pretty interesting read even if they weren’t famous—it covers a lot of ground; from the normal high school growing pains and modern family complexities to discovering their sexuality and dealing with the inevitable conflicts of sisterhood (especially challenging when you’re identical twins). That sounds like a book to me! But then add a burgeoning music
career into the fold and things suddenly get extremely interesting, especially when the sisters realize they are much better together than apart. One taste of this song’s chorus will make that fact crystal clear—you can’t create chemistry like this without some genetic assistance. What’s cool about the record from which it came (Hey, I’m Just Like You) is that the songs were originally written around the time the book takes place (but recorded recently) and acts as a musical guide through the trials and tribulations present in both of their lives at the time. It also proves they had some serious songwriting chops at a young age.
25 "Summon the Fire" / The Comet is Coming
Shabaka Hutchings is a busy man. His band, Sons of Kemet, was responsible for our #1 record of 2018, Your Queen is a Reptile. A year later, he was back with another group, The Comet is Coming, his ongoing project with keyboardist Dan “Danalogue” Deavers and drummer Max “Betamax” Hallett (ugh), and predictably Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery made our Top 10 album list in 2019. When does this guy sleep? “Summon the Fire” is Hutchings not just summoning fire, but reinventing it. Yup, he has time for that, too.
24 “Superbike” / Jay Som
Jay Som is Melinda Mae Duterte. It’s not often an artist comes along with a singular guitar sound that's instantly identifiable on any playlist. There’s just no mistaking a Jay Som song. I think the way this album is described scares some people off. Bedroom dream-pop? Maybe if you’re lazy, which Duterte surely isn’t, but it sounds professionally recorded. Or is it better to say “correctly” recorded—like the vision of an artist fully realized. She did it herself, so that makes more sense. “Superbike” represents the album well, but hers is such a consistently appealing sound, choosing one song over another seems futile. It’s an album that begs for a front-to-back.
23 "I Dare You” / The Regrettes
The Regrettes are led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Lydia Night and she’s great at all three jobs (Lydia, oh Lydia, have you seen Lydia, Lydia the talented lady?). For her efforts, she’s getting a good performance review for her work in 2019 (and a 2.5% salary bump). She can write edgy pop singles that you’ll hum for days, has a killer rock star voice, exudes seemingly effortless charisma, and she can play a mean guitar, too. One listen to “I Dare You” is all the proof you need—it’s a short, sharp single loaded with enough juice to make you think something big could happen real soon.
22 “Blown to Bits” / Charly Bliss
Lead singer Eva Hendricks would be the perfect choice for a cartoon voice-over gig, but her child-like voice is also strangely effective when riding the sound wave created by her band, Charly Bliss. It’s a thrilling single with a great beginning, “Life as I know it/Anything goes/Karate lessons, reality shows/I feel so tired can’t believe this is it/It’s going to break my heart to see it blown to bits” and gets better from there as the band surges like an overtaxed electrical box for the duration.
21 "Summer Girl" / HAIM
This is the song of the summer 2020, if we’re allowed to have one. A single from the forthcoming, and delayed, (not to mention cleverly titled) Women in Music, Pt. 3, we got this early and couldn’t stop playing the cool little cucumber.
20 "Lover" / Taylor Swift
I feel very lucky to be right in the sweet spot of Taylor Swift’s preferred demographic—all of humanity. You think she wants to cater exclusively to teenage girls? It may have turned out that way for a while, but she’s always been a world conqueror and wall destroyer so why stop now? She left country in the dust because it was too limiting, so if she’s not the President of the United States in the next twenty years I’ll be mildly disappointed. But she’s doing it right, with the exception of her cloying stage banter, by writing some really really good pop songs. I can’t take them all in one sitting, to be honest, but when “Lover” begins, undoubtedly a drop-dead great song, I’m all in. I like how the song comes in slowly with a little Mazzy Star “Fade Into You” rip (no biggie, everybody does it) and then builds slowly and seductively to a killer chorus absolutely deserving of a football stadium level of vocal support. (A thing to behold, I’m sure, although I won’t be there.) The only real issue I have is the opening line about leaving the Christmas lights up until January. To me, that doesn’t sound like anyone is breaking any rules as the song implies—who takes down their lights before January? I’d say the vast majority of house decorators wait until after New Year’s Eve to take them down. Doesn’t strike me as a young empowered couple living the way they want to finally—just the opposite it true—they’re disappointingly conventional. It would’ve been more effective if she used February instead. “We could leave the Christmas lights up til February/This is our place, we make the rules.” Tell me that ain’t better.
19 “What Heaven’s Left” / Calexico and Iron & Wine
For my money, Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) is one of America’s finest songwriters. He’s gained appropriate acclaim in some circles, but his national treasure status, which he richly deserves, has not been granted yet. Perhaps his songs are a little too unwonted for today’s world, but he’s released some of the most beautiful and beguiling songs of the last 20 years and “What Heaven’s Left” is one of his best. Maybe you can just listen to his music with your head tilted to the side a little. Here’s he’s joined up once again with fellow national treasure, the wonderful Calexico, and the results are predictably magical.
18 “come undone” / Marika Hackman
It’s just a great pop song at its core and that’s enough justification, really. I listen to a lot of pop songs each year and I’ve found it’s often one key moment that elevates one over another. On Marika’s bouncy ode to foolish love, I like the way the chorus says two things at once; one is the main narrative, the other is that little voice we all have deep down that tries to stop us from doing something stupid. I have a strange feeling the voice lost this battle.
17 “The Greatest” / Lana Del Rey
In truth, my favorite song on Lana’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! was “Mariner’s [Fucking] Apartment Complex,” but I already had that on my 2018 mixtape (released well in advance), so I went with “The [Fucking] Greatest” over “Venice [Fucking] Bitch” because it misses Rock & [Fucking] Roll and so do I.
16 “Shane” / Jesse Malin
It hurts me when records as brilliant as Jesse Malin’s Sunset Kids don’t get their just due. Easily his career masterpiece, it captures the aching torment of a weathered and worn soul in one song after the next. “Shane” is a tribute, maybe even a love letter, to the Pogues’ Shane McGowan and it distills the essence of the man in a little over three minutes. If it isn’t played at his funeral some day I’d be shocked.
15 “Higher Beams” / The New Pornographers
The first ten seconds might make you think you’ve accidentally got a little ELO in your New Pornographers, but thankfully it’s just another genius pop song from the mind of A.C. Newman. Conflict pervades the verses, but the all-purpose chorus is what puts this in another league. If “Thank you/Thank you for nothing” and later “Fuck you/Fuck you for nothing” doesn’t mitigate your angst (be it in traffic, at work, poor customer service, you name it) then little will. This song has been a blessing for my emotional well being for the past few months. It’s like a blood pressure pill in music form.
14 “The Barrel” / Aldous Harding
She’s the coolest girl in the room, but she doesn’t even care. The truly cool never do. “The Barrel” is a perfect example of a song that sounds tossed-off for her amusement in order to confound those of us trying to figure it out. To quote Aldous, “People are so keen to get the bottom of stuff that’s none of their business.”
13 “Pa’ Poder Vivir” / Ani Cordero
New York’s Ani Cordero, of Puerto Rican descent, manages to be socially conscious and true to her roots all while cranking out anthems like this one that’ll have you thrusting your fist in the air in unity even if you don’t speak Spanish or know the cause. The song is simply that stirring. (I do recommend you translate the lyrics, however, and if so inclined, support the cause.)
12 “Faraway Look” / Yola
Another Dan Auerbach production and he’s got the magic touch lately (perhaps always). Yola’s debut was absolutely smashing and this song, from the first listen, sounded like it was from the golden age of Brill Building songwriting. It’s overused, but if I had one song to call timeless this year, this is it. If you have never had your heart broken, this is how it starts. You can feel the building tension every time she sings it.
11 “Turn to Hate” / Orville Peck
This mysterious Canadian (I'm guessing Wayne Gretzky) wears a mask with a leather fringe over his mouth to protect his anonymity (that won’t do at the grocery store these days, Orville) put out one of those “what are we supposed to do with this” albums in 2019. It won’t get on country radio, but it has several songs that should be (they don’t take kindly to gay cowboys from Canada, I reckon). But why does something have to fit somewhere? Why can’t something fit everywhere? It’s my opinion that Orville is for everyone who loves good music, genre and labels be damned. He’s been blessed with a deep and rich voice that immediately recalls sacred names like Elvis, Cash, Roy, and even some unsacred names like Chris Isaak. He also has a powerful message to convey. “Turn to Hate,” and its crushing coda, “Don’t let my sorrow turn to hate” was the most dramatic moment of 2019. I just played it again moments ago and the goose bumps were back right on schedule.
10 “Seventeen” / Sharon Van Etten
This song sounded like an instant New York classic from the first listen and it’s not a stretch to call Sharon Van Etten the current voice of New York City (a la Patti Smith in the 70s). “Seventeen” laments how much she, and her environment, has changed over the years. I’ve heard others mourn the loss of “gritty” NYC in favor of high rents, soaring property values, trendy restaurants, etc. but nobody’s done it quite this well.
9 “Hollywood Lawn” / Jenny Lewis
My writing is down here, people! Jenny Lewis writes songs in ways nobody else would even attempt. The imagery on “Hollywood Lawn” takes a while to reconcile, but the melancholy feeling it creates is palpable. Never has the emptiness of ending a relationship sounded like this.
8 “Sleepwalkin’” / Better Oblivion Community Center
I was right in the middle of a Conor Oberst sabbatical when this collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers appeared, so it took me a while to get wise to their extremely gratifying chemistry. The album turned out to be a deep collection, without a dud in the bunch, so picking one song makes me want to pick another tomorrow. “Sleepwalkin’” wins the overall because it has my favorite lyrics: “You like beer and chocolate/I like setting off those bottle rockets/We can never compromise/But fighting ‘til the death keeps us alive.”
7 "That’s Just the Way I Feel" / Purple Mountains
It’s impossible to rationalize suicide. It’s always tragic. But coming so soon after the overwhelming adulation this record received makes it much harder to understand. If Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith (et al) have taught us anything, it’s that artistic acclaim has little to do with internal happiness and/or emotional stability. David Berman left us with this album loaded with insights into his state of mind (“When I try to drown my thoughts in gin/I find my worst ideas know how to swim”), but they were housed in clever, often hilarious, lyrics that made you think, incorrectly, that the problems he’s singing about might be in the past. Otherwise, how could a song this good even make it to the light of day? As always, the questions far outnumber the answers.
6 “Esperando Na Janela” / Gaby Moreno & Van Dyke Parks
One of my favorite vocal discoveries in recent years is Guatemalan singer/song Gaby Moreno. Her last album, Ilusión, was a revelation, full of brilliant singing and perfect song selections. She’s the definition of versatile—a little pop, a little jazz, a lot Latin, some English, some Spanish. Her range seems limitless. This time, she’s teamed up with master arranger Van Dyke Parks and, while sometimes a bit overreaching (you don’t collaborate with VDP to get more conservative), there are other moments of pure joy. If you don’t dance and spin around the house like you’re wearing a Mexican huipil (men and women both!) when this song (made famous by the great Gilberto Gil) comes on, you’ve lost the battle with ennui. It has smothered you.
5 “Happens to the Heart” / Leonard Cohen
We thought we had his final statement, but it turns out we were wrong. I almost would’ve preferred to end with the elegiac You Want it Darker but this record, aided by some posthumous production by son Adam, did have a few essential Cohen gems we’re better off having than not having. “Happens to the Heart” is one last classic Cohen poem, making it look easy as always, taking something simple and lending it beauty without a misplaced word. To the end, the consummate craftsman.
4 “Crowded Table” / The Highwomen
Every once in a while a song brings everything into the proper perspective. “Crowded Table” is one of those songs. It would work as a song about having a big family in general or it could be about a family reunion (perhaps on Thanksgiving) with a perpetual extra chair for unexpected guests. The “Crowded Table” asks no questions. It’s a place to seek refuge. But this song has even grander intentions. It takes the image of the crowded table and extends it to immigrants, the marginalized, the struggling, the oppressed, those discriminated against, and anyone else not treated fairly by society. In a way, it’s a musical Statue of Liberty. Everyone has a space at this table (but help with the dishes afterwards, of course). So let’s be more understanding and grab one more folding chair from the garage and lay down another place setting. There’s always room for one more.
3 “Hello Sunshine” / Bruce Springsteen
Bruce’s 2019 album Western Stars captured little stories all taking place in the dry, warm California heat. From the moment it was released, “Hello Sunshine” seemed like the perfect distillation of the record’s intent. It’s a gorgeously atmospheric song with multiple meanings that defy its outward simplicity. I assume it was informed by the revelations of depression revealed in his autobiography, but either way it speaks plainly about an alternative to a life covered in black clouds. (The song, particularly the line, “You fall in love with lonely/You end up that way” reminds me of Tunnel of Love’s “When You’re Alone” but 30 years later.) There’s always a way out if you look hard enough, seems to be the message. As Leonard Cohen once said, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
2 “Boys in the Better Land” / Fontaines D.C.
These Irish rockers are poets at heart. Their songs go way beyond the expected pub rock belters and find the heart of the matter instead. Even when rocking, they have time for a James Joyce reference—this is a band that’s not just skin deep. But that doesn’t mean they sacrifice energy, power, or passion—all are on ample display throughout “Boys in a Better Land” and their phenomenal 2019 record, Dogrel. They have everything needed and more for a long run and right now they sound like an important band with a bright future. I hope I’m right. We’ll find out soon enough—album two out shortly.
1 “Crystal Ball” / Tacocat
Two years ago, my favorite song of the year was Superchunk’s “What a Time to Be Alive.” This year it’s “Crystal Ball” by Tacocat with a chorus that starts “What a time to be living a lie” and later “What a time to be barely alive” and there’s no secret what they’re getting at either. If you look closely at our infrastructure, we’re deteriorating. Physically, emotionally, psychologically, you name it. But even if you’re not paying close attention you’ll get a super energized pop song with soaring harmonies that’ll make you forget you have a care in the world. And that feeling is what I needed the most in 2019.
See you next year, but which one?