The Daily Californian’s Arts Awards: Music of 2019

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This year in music has been a swirl of seasoned artists taking the reins of deserved success, as well as young artists breaking onto the scene in flagrantly convention-disrupting fashion. From Billie Eilish to Lizzo, Lil Nas X to Lana Del Rey, this year’s musical titans have delivered at every turn, continuing to stun audiences with their talent and creativity. These heavy hitters have been slowly chipping away at the music industry landscape, fostering dynamic changes that have diversified the mainstream in significant ways. These winners are only a sample of the radical change rippling through the music world.

— Areyon Jolivette

 

Best Album

 

Winner: Cuz I Love You, Lizzo

Atlantic Records / Courtesy

Lizzo, purveyor of hit after hit over the course of the last year and beyond, took the musical world by storm, flexing her versatility as a rapper and a songstress on our selection for album of the year, Cuz I Love You. The album, which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, boasts the infectious “Juice,” a track that has underscored many a college function over the last year. Not to mention, the deluxe version also includes the sleeper hit “Truth Hurts,” which landed Lizzo at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks.  

But the hits don’t stop there. 

The title track is a dynamic vocal revelation for the artist, demonstrating the full extent of her vocal ability in iron-lunged belting and ground-shaking vibrato. The album also stuns with features from genre powerhouses Gucci Mane and Missy Elliott. “Tempo” brings a deep and danceable bass line with frisky lyrics to match. The duo of Lizzo and Elliott feels inevitable, with the artists’ lyricism complementary and full-bodied. “Exactly How I Feel,” similarly imbued with Lizzo’s unique brand of sass, grounds itself in the sounds of funk and soul, interceded by contemporary pop devices. Record-scratching, a plucky bass line, trap beats and playful call-and-response lyrics make the track an album staple. 

Overall the album, Grammy-nominated for Album of the Year, is a cohesive and stellar entry into the artist’s discography — one that rightfully earns its title as our pick for best album of 2019.

— Areyon Jolivette

Runner-up: Normal Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey

On her fifth major-label record, Lana Del Rey establishes herself as one of the most prolific and powerful voices in the music industry. The artist takes a sharp turn from her all-American persona and hip-hop influences to create her most authentic work yet: a collection of poignant, clever and moving songs that manage to feel both despondent and hopeful at the same time. All of Del Rey’s regular themes –– troubled love stories, emotional turmoil and a classic American image –– appear in full force, taking form as stripped-down ballads that delicately explore each topic in all of their beautiful complexities.

— Salem Sulaiman

Best Billboard 100 single

Winner: “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X

Columbia Records / Courtesy

Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is far more than a catchy TikTok song that made the Billboard Hot 100 after achieving internet fame. It is a genre-redefining phenomenon that erupted outside of the traditional music industry, changing the way successful singles are created.

Country imagery, hip hop beats and a Billy Ray Cyrus feature on the remix make “Old Town Road” one of the year’s best tracks. The song cements Lil Nas X as an innovator in country and rap fusion. It brings awareness to the complicated racial dynamic in country music, with “Old Town Road” being expelled from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart despite Lil Nas X’s continued classification of the track as a contemporary country record. It opened the conversation about the frequent dismissal of country singles by Black artists by the country music establishment.

Despite being independent of industry support, this track achieved viral fame and currently has the longest streak at the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, holding the spot for a whopping 19 weeks. Its overwhelming success indicates a transfer of power from record labels to online listeners through shining a spotlight on up-and-coming artists.

— Rhea Srivats

Runner-up: “bad guy,” Billie Eilish

With the release of “bad guy” off of her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Billie Eilish proved herself to be a critical favorite and commercial force to be reckoned with. Knocking off the record-setting No. 1 song “Old Town Road” from the Billboard Hot 100, the genre-defying song is not the typical No. 1 single. The breathy vocals and propulsive bass make this track unrelenting and unforgettable. At just 17 years old, this breakout artist has cemented herself as an innovative, atypical pop star who still has more exciting music to offer.         

— Julia Mears

Best Song

Winner: “Brown Skin Girl,” Beyoncé, Wizkid, Saint Jhn

Parkwood / Courtesy

“Brown Skin Girl” by Beyoncé, Wizkid, Saint Jhn and featuring Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, is a part of the album The Lion King: The Gift and makes its listeners feel like a part of the family. It is both comforting and empowering. If Carter tells you to value the color of your skin, as she does at the very beginning of the song, you have no choice but to listen. 

Carter’s recital of the chorus of the song at its opening allows the song an almost folkish and very local, homely feeling, as if your great-grandmother’s recipe that has been running in your family for years was turned into a song. The song makes several references to Black female pop culture icons, like Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o and supermodel Naomi Campbell, thus grounding it in a contemporary environment of a society that gives little value to brown skin as opposed to a lighter complexion. 

Toward the end of the song, Beyoncé speaks to her daughter to advise her, “If ever you are in doubt, remember what mama told you.” This song is, evidently, also a gentle reminder to her own daughter that the world may not treat her kindly owing to the color of her skin, but that it is deeply valued; that it “shines” and “tells your story.” This is what makes it particularly beautiful and a fitting recipient of this award. 

— Anoushka Agrawal

Runner-up: “NO HALO,” Brockhampton 

In runner-up for best song, “NO HALO” from Brockhampton’s latest album GINGER couples its gripping melody with moving lyrics about depression and drug addiction. This song was released in August of this year as the fourth single from the album. Most notable about the song is the chorus, which repeats an ascending melody as Deb Never and Merlyn Wood sing, “I’m sure I’ll find it/ No one help me when my eyes go red.” 

Brockhampton created this multifaceted song to both gracefully acknowledge apparent moral shortcomings — or lack of halo, so to speak — and strongly emphasize that each of the members has the internal resilience to find their way on their own. 

— Malini Ramaiyer

Best Music Video

Winner: “Lights Up,” Harry Styles

YouTube / Courtesy

Since 2019 seems to be the unofficial year of Harry Styles, we can’t help but recognize that the release of the “Lights Up” music video was a positive turning point for the year as a whole. Do we have concrete evidence? No, but watch the video, and you’ll agree. 

After more than a year of silence from the David Bowie-esque pop singer, Styles announced his return with a simultaneous drop of a new single and matching music video for “Lights Up.” Released around National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, Styles’ video portrays him in a chaotic mass of people with sensual energy and little to no clothing. While the song is assumed to address the fame associated with Styles’ celebrity, some say it also hints at Styles’ ambiguous sexuality and fluidity. The video is wholly a pairing to the atmosphere surrounding Styles’ new presence as an artist separate of his boy band past. And as fans anticipate the release of his upcoming album, Fine Line, in just less than two weeks, the music video has garnered nearly 40 million views since its release. The description of the video includes the hashtag #DoYouKnowWhoYouAre, which follows a marketing campaign fans had been obsessing over leading up to the single’s release. A conversation starter and an ode to the growth of Styles as an artist, this video was surely not one to miss. 

—Skylar De Paul

Runner-up: “You Need to Calm Down,” Taylor Swift 

The sugar-sweet music video for Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” takes aim at haters as a perfectly packaged pop single spreading the message of love and acceptance. It takes an equality first stance as she pals around with fellow residents of a candy-colored trailer park and faces down anti-LGBTQ+ protesters. Through numerous Easter eggs, Swift showcases her metamorphosis from the Reputation-era into the Lover-era, one that’s apparently filled with rainbows and butterflies. She ends the colorful music video with a message to support her petition in favor of the U.S. Senate passing the Equality Act and admonishes those who tear others down.

— Salma Gomez

Best Breakout Artist

Winner: Lizzo

Flickr / Creative Commons

Melissa Jefferson, better known by her stage name Lizzo, has soundtracked the media world for the better part of the last 2 years. Her music has been featured everywhere, from film and ad campaigns to the tinny speaker in your local grocery store. The artist herself slowly and steadily crept into the public consciousness until, with the help of the viral 2017 hit “Truth Hurts,” she catapulted to fame this year. Having been quietly releasing bop after bop under the mainstream radar for years, the singer’s spotlight was well overdue. 

The flute slinging, iron-lunged songstress has made a name for herself through uncompromising self-expression and concerted efforts toward authentic representation. This representation has spelled out emancipation from rigid beauty standards for Black women and people in general through unabashed self-acceptance. The woman who put the “sing” in singer has made it a point to celebrate defying societal norms at every turn, and in return, her fan base has been loyal and ever-growing. This year, the artist has remained at the forefront of the hip-hop and R&B world. Her single “Good as Hell,” revamped with a feature from Ariana Grande, reentered the Billboard Hot 100 and displaced “Truth Hurts,” which had been at No. 1 for 11 weeks. For the way she’s changing the cultural standards so prevalent in the music industry, Lizzo more than deserves this win. 

— Areyon Jolivette

Runner-up: Billie Eilish

What were you doing at age 17? If your answer is racking up hundreds of millions of streams on music videos, singles and interviews, then chances are you’re probably Billie Eilish. This teen icon rose to fame quicker than nearly anyone in 2019. With almost 1 billion Spotify streams on her song “bad guy,” a track off of her very first album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, we can only imagine the talent brewing in Eilish before she even turns 20. Although Eilish has had singles lingering about the music scene since 2015, it was her confidence and performative talent that really put her in the spotlight in 2019. 

— Skylar De Paul

Artist of the Year

Winner: Lana Del Rey

Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Lana Del Rey, whose off-brand musical sensibility kept her a longtime favorite of many listeners, rose to superstar status in 2019. After nearly a decade of singing in the tradition of glamourous mid-1900s Americana, the songstress has expanded her scope and refined her style in a way that speaks to audiences unlike she ever has in the past. In her most recent album, the prolific Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey trades in her regular dream pop songs for poignant ballads; she abandons her kitschy glamorization of American culture in favor of a deeper, more nuanced analysis of what it means to live and love in today’s world. The result is a magnificent, existential survey of self-exploration –– and the world listened earnestly.

Del Rey’s latest work is a culmination of a long career’s worth of growth. Throughout her past five albums, she has explored the beauty and pain of love and loss, using everything from rock to hip hop influences to refine her voice and style. Norman Fucking Rockwell! is Del Rey’s climax: She has not only found her voice, but she has used it to connect with listeners on a personal level. Most importantly, the album is a testament to Del Rey’s skills as a songwriter and an affirmation of her status as an alternative pop legend.

— Salem Sulaiman

Runner-up: Brockhampton

California-based rap collective Brockhampton has had an amazing year, releasing its latest album GINGER in August and privileging audiences with a series of successful singles such as “BOY BYE” and “NO HALO.” Led by Kevin Abstract, the group also features talented members such as Jabari Manwa, Joba, Matt Champion and Bearface. As something of a phenomenon, Brockhampton emerged from San Marcos, Texas and continues to produce genre-defying hip-hop as well as a variety of media. Its music is a mix of authentic rap, contemporary hip-hop and subtle infusions of pop. Currently on its “Heaven Belongs to You” tour, Brockhampton has been performing all over North America in promotion of GINGER.

— Luna Khalil

Contact The Daily Californian’s arts & entertainment staff at [email protected].