Look, it’s practically impossible to select the best songs in a year. First of all, the single is so rarely the best song an album that using that categorization as criteria does not generally yield accurate results. Second of all, music critics are probably the people on the planet who listen to the greatest number of albums and songs per year, and even most of us have our niches and specializations we tend to linger in–it simply isn’t feasible for a single person to listen to every song that has come out in a year.
So of course these lists must have more than one person and involved, and, they tend to be even more subjective than those pesky best albums of the year lists. Those suffer from a similar fate, which is why I prefer to break them out into genre factions to make sure people are getting a sense of the scope of each musical style—but, the internet loves a ranking! In an attempt to hear both sides I’ve enlisted some of my own personal favorite writers/tastemakers to deliver their two favorite songs from the year so far. Feast on the bounty below–bet you haven’t even heard a lot of these yet.
“Crush” — Yuna Ft. Usher
After years of ignoring all things soft, critics made a sudden about-face in the late ‘00s. Acclaim was showered on the xx, How To Dress Well, James Blake, Rhye–anyone who scanned as “indie” but borrowed lessons from the breathy, adult-oriented end of ‘80s and ‘90s R&B: Sade, Janet Jackson, Tamia. Never mind that the source material was–and in some cases, still is–ignored by a wide swathe of writers.
Yuna’s “Crush” is overwhelmingly soft. The guitar curls and hangs, shimmering just like the lazy afternoon that the singer invokes in the first line. Yuna’s voice wafts up and down the scale, blowing whichever way the wind takes it. In this airy space, any solid sentiments must be questioned. “I feel a little rush, I think I’ve got a little crush on you,” Yuna sings. She follows that quickly with, “I hope it’s not too much.”
Usher arrives for the second verse, slicing through the track with tensile strength that’s as urgent–“we shouldn’t waste time no more” – as Yuna is unhurried. Usher rarely encounters strange beats like this now; he’s too busy trying to fight his way back into pop contention by riding whatever production trend happens to be hot at the moment. But in recent years, unusual instrumentals have brought out his best: the jarring stop-start of “Good Kisser,” and before that, the too-simple “Climax.”
“Crush,” like much of Yuna’s Chapters album, came together with help from Mac Robinson and Brian Warfield, who produce as Fisticuffs. You may recognize some of their other credits: Miguel’s “Arch And Point,” one of his most effective excursions into arena rock; Jazmine Sullivan’s “One Night Stand,” a polished slice of retro-soul. “Crush” landed Yuna her first hit – the song reached No. 10 on this week’s Adult R&B chart. That’s the same place that singles from Janet Jackson and Tamia end up these days. It remains to be seen if others will listen.—Elias Leight
“A Whole Lot More To Me” — Craig Morgan
Morgan is the kind of country journeyman who rarely gets attention outside of the country sphere. A Whole Lot More To Me is his seventh album; since debuting in 2000, only three of his singles have even cracked the top 5 on the Country Airplay chart, much less garnered acclaim from a broader audience. Morgan seems ok with that: he’s hasn’t started rapping to catch the attention of wayward Sam Hunt fans, and he’s not trying to sneak onto an NPR listener’s radar under the guise of “Americana.”
Maybe he knows that staying in your lane brings its own rewards–“A Whole Lot More To Me” is quietly bewitching. This might’ve been made at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama around 1978: the keyboard tone and gently pulsing rhythm exist at the intersection of country and yacht rock, a fruitful space that yielded delightful singles from Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, the Eagles, and Kenny Rogers, among others.
Morgan starts the song by embracing the stereotypes that are often wielded to cut country down at the knees: “I know everything there is to know about a truck/ I drink my share of beer on an old tailgate/ I grew up on an old dirt road, so I know where they go.” He doesn’t need to establish this authority lyrically–it’s present in his voice, and throughout his discography–but it sets up the punchline, a quick rebuke to surface judgements: “There’s so much more to me, baby wait and see.”
The chorus is meticulously constructed. At first, Morgan exudes strain, and you can imagine veins popping as he lists the things that might defy preconceptions: “I like a good cabernet from a Napa Valley vine, late night sushi by candlelight/ I’ve got a Versace suit.” But his register changes on the last clause of the couplet – “and a half a dozen silk ties” – and suddenly he’s a care-free crooner. The tone shift drives home the message behind the words: you thought you knew what was coming; you didn’t. “A Whole Lot More To Me” is a pointed plea not to write off Morgan, but it’s also a veteran mounting a defense of his genre.—Elias Leight