A little late to the Best Songs of 2020 party is fashionable. You’re tired of all the rest, now it’s time to read, well, just another list.
This is my yearly countdown of the best songs (as dictated by me, of course) from the past year. It’s already January 13th, which means that most of you sonic go-getters have already moved on to anticipating the fruits of 2021. I’ve been operating at a different pace for damn well near a year now (because 2020) so 13 days late just feels… right.
First, I’ll present my standard disclaimers. I’m just one listener. I read blogs and share picks and discuss new finds with my partner in listing, B-Sides Narrative aka Michael Smith (@BSidesNarrative on the Twatter); but I’m still just one pair of ears and one set of limiting and finicky preferences. A year ago I would have been paid for making observations such as these (believe it or not people paid me to hear my thoughts on music) so you’re getting unfiltered, unadulterated 30Hz for the cost of free. As David Byrne said on Remain In Light, “same as it ever was.” I’ve been giving these notes away for free for more than a decade. (Speaking of David Byrne, you should absolutely watch American Utopia now streaming on HBO Max because it’s a document of one of the greatest live concerts I’ve ever seen. Plus, it’s a Spike Lee joint, which makes it even more mind-blowing as an intersection of two brilliant but face-value mismatched creative minds. Like the positive side of crossing the streams.)
If nothing else, 2020 gave us reason to crave escape — be it through movies or music. I found many many many hours of solace in Bill Evans (this will come as no surprise to anyone in my family) — namely the albums Undercurrents and Moonbeams. I even found my 11yo daughter reading in her room listening to Bill Evans because “it was the only chill music that I could think of.” That’s called top of mind awareness. It’s also called molding young minds. As a result of this new listening trajectory, the kinds of music I consumed shifted. The frequency with which I sought out new and obscure music changed as well. Once the music magazine for which I was writing folded in April of 2020, my priorities shifted from “discovery mode” to “maintenance mode.” What’s next became what’s great and familiar. Oddly, I’m not sure that I heard more new music, but I heard and found many more different kinds of music. I dabbled in more contemporary jazz artists, world music and experimental. I can’t claim that too much of it is represented in my Best of 2020 Songs list, but it informed and broadened my palette for adventure. Instead you’ll find a similar assortment of electro-dream-pop and pulsing disco beats alongside the side dishes of alt-country and distressed bedroom singer-songwriters.
Keep digging through those crates. Keep searching for more music. Those unique voices and heartfelt pleas for change and hope and the sorrow of loss and life. Music, more than ever, needs to help guide us through the quagmire… and maybe some of these songs will help.
Spotify Playlist (Top 124):
30Hz Top 25 Best Songs of 2020:
“Say the Name” – clipping.
A call to words and/or arms. A protest song. Experimental, alt-rap from Daveed Diggs, aka Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson. This is the flowiest absence of flow you’ve ever heard. The cadence and language rattles in your brain, a train of the future forever arriving from the distance, just beyond sight.
“Blue Comanche” – Westerman
Smooth, buttery sonic landscapes fronted by hushed, high-pitched and hopeful vocals. My year-long tally of “hits” that struck a chord featured five songs from Westerman — the most of any other artist in 2020. This is the music that soothed savage souls.
“god’s chariots” – Oklou
I first heard Oklou on a long, late-night drive. Everyone else in the car had fallen asleep and the highway stretched out infinitely into the future. No cars, no sights other than the concrete under my headlights. Ethereal vocals and hookish electronic beats soundtracked the moment better than anything I could have chosen. The electronic artist of my year.
“Lilacs” – Waxahatchee
This could have been four other Waxahatchee songs from their latest LP, Saint Cloud. It doesn’t matter. Put them all here. I spread a few out over my 100+ countdown but Waxahatchee is a mood. Not quite country, not quite folk, not exactly alt. Katie Crutchfield’s voice speaks to everyone through its familiarity, relatability, sturdy during swells and fragile when it all falls apart.
“Lovers (Home Made)” – Anna of the North
A singer can manufacture emotion through nothing more than precise control of their vocal accentuations. The tenuous connections between syllables bears great responsibility. This one tears tears me the fuck up because the Oslo-based Anna Lotterud allows breath between perfectly chosen syllables, the breakdown of the artist, the deconstruction of the artistic creation. You’ll melt before she finally utters that “k” in “dark” during the very first verse.
“Live 4eva” – Magdalena Bay
I wrote about the promising home-brewed electro-pop upstarts Magdalena Bay for the now defunct music magazine Music Meet Fans. I’d link the article, but it’s been obliterated by the cruel mistress called failure. Mag Bay (Mica and Matthew) creates whip-smart little confections that take your face, kiss you full on the lips and leave you wanting more, more, more. Beats, relentless pluck and a deft musicality.
“Forever” – Nicole Atkins
Don’t you dare try to pin down Nicole Atkins with one of those reductionist music-industry labels. She’s Joni Mitchell Roy Orbison Steve Nicks Otis Redding Jefferson Starship. She’s a psychedelic soul singer songwriter. She’s a goddess. “Forever” lifted me up whenever it shuffled to the top. It’s not a song I would have necessarily chosen from an objective perspective, but it refused to not make me happy and that there’s a return on investment.
“4ÆM” – Grimes
Grimes channels Tibetan monks, block rockin’ beats, flight of the bumblebee and Martian dream logic. Just another Tuesday.
“JU$T” – Run the Jewels, featuring Zack de la Rocha, Pharrell Williams
I listened to a lot of garbage rap music in 2020 in search of the this spark that people claim is happening. It’s not for me. If you’re still telling me that Drake can rap, I’m turning down your volume. What’s that? I can’t hear that kind of stupid. I came of age when beats and rhymes (and samples) reigned supreme. What we hear today might be called progress, but apparently I’m a purist and that kind of progress sucks. El-P and Killer Mike have taken up the torch and this time they’ve got a bone to pick. No rap artist has produced more consistent greatness in the 21st century.
“Dionne” – The Japanese House, featuring Justin Vernon
The Japanese House channels Frou Frou. Remember Frou Frou? Hell yes you do. (Just say you do. Humor me.) Justin Vernon adds lo-fi soul like frosted tips. It might be possible to craft a song more perfectly aimed at unlocking my heart locker, but it would require an appearance from CHVRCHES.
“Paper Cup” – Real Estate, featuring Sylvan Esso
Lounging in a tepid pool, the morning after… pondering the limits of your own potential and holding a fruity cocktail in a Soho cup. You’re depressed that you’re right here at this moment, but you wouldn’t be anywhere else.
“Murder Most Foul” – Bob Dylan
I’m no Dylan acolyte, but this meditation on what we lost after the Kennedy assassination is Bob Dylan’s Iliad and his Odyssey.
“Spotlight” – Jessie Ware
Remember that troubling disco thread I mentioned in my list this year? This is just the blissful tip of the iceberg. Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? LP will make you question why the sounds of the 70’s ever disappeared. I’m even hearing some traces of Bill Conti’s score for For Your Eyes Only. I’m clearly deranged.
“Dying to Believe” – The Beths
New Zealand rrriot girls blister and burn through hooks and sass. Great guitar-driving rock was a rare sound in 2020, but this would have been a damn fine record in any year. This cut stayed with me from the start, meaning it was just as good with COVID as it was without. There’s something to be said for that kind of versatility.
“The Steps” – Haim
Haim’s new record found the band emerging from the long shadow of their ancestors and finding their own voice and creative vibe. Este’s new confidence in her vocal range, the merging of genres, the shifting tempo, a memorable hook. I’m a Haim junkie and I don’t care who knows it.
“Guilty Conscience” – 070 Shake
Danielle Balbuena calls herself an alternative hip-hop artist. This song doesn’t speak to that, but it does suggest that we have no clue how big this Jersey-born talent could get. No genre can hold her. Big voice, musicality, experimentalism. No reservations. If you find yourself swaying for no earthly reason you might be hearing the background synths to “Guilty Conscience” in the back of your brain.
“Cool for a Second” – Yumi Zouma and Japanese Wallpaper
Two of my favorite electro-pop/dream-pop artists unite and it’s like this song always existed, somewhere out in the cosmos, an ethereal tone above our comprehension. These two artists just turned the right frequency. If you’re just learning about Yumi Zouma or Japanese Wallpaper you’ve got listening to do. Prepare to be content beyond belief.
“Ferris Wheel” – Sylvan Esso
This duo just has an indefinable swagger. It’s a good song… and then there’s that call and response “hey” thing and that’s the earworm of the year. That one second. To which I can only surrender.
“So We Won’t Forget” – Khruangbin
Other than a certain buzzy lady named Phoebe, Khruangbin released the record of my year. This Houston trio could be spouting gibberish poems over these slick grooves and I wouldn’t care. Kitchen cleaner ads. Whatever you want, guys. These mellow vibes cut through the imprecise nature of language. I have no idea what any of these songs are about. Who cares? A fast ride on a plodding mule into the sunset — that’s the Khruangbin tempo.
“My God” – The Killers, featuring Weyes Blood
Brandon Flowers brought the Killers back from the dead with a new lineup, new guest vocalists (kd lang?!) and a new lease on life. I included “Caution” on last year’s list and Weyes Blood is also no stranger to my countdowns, having won the top album spot in two different years. This one wound up at #6 because this here’s a pair of artists I never knew I wanted together. If you’re still resisting the grotesque and garish beauty of this new album from the Killers, I don’t think I want your kind of juju tarnishing these vibes.
“Stay” – Valerie June
Tennessee soul artist teases further greatness with a one-off song release. See this girl live if you can, if concerts ever reconvene because she’s a force of nature, the anomalous intersection of New York soul and Tennessee folk music. She’s inimitable — a perfect distillation of the self through a singular sound.
“Blinding Lights” – The Weeknd
Not much to say about The Weeknd that hasn’t already been said. I slept on this record and this song for months, but I’m glad I came back and gave it another chance. While I might not vibe with the album as much as his past efforts, it’s not for a lack of imagination. This guy’s a supernova and we’re just trying not to get burnt by the flames. It’s the synth that gets me, if I’m being honest.
“Breathe Deeper” – Tame Impala
Oh yeah. Tame Impala — how interesting. You would put Tame Impala on your list. Yeah. I would. Damn straight. Because while I’ve been a longtime fan, this album bangs by proxy. And “bangs by proxy” isn’t even the dumbest, most meaningless thing I wrote today. This is why I can’t write about music for more than an hour per day because things like that start making sense.
tie. “Too Late” – Washed Out
tie. “4 American Dollars” – U.S. Girls
Okay, so confession. #2 is a tie because I miscounted and started my list at #26 instead of #25, but why waste mindless prose when you can just call #2 a tie and make everybody but Travis happy because they got left out at #27 and goddammit those Scots deserve to be happy, too. But I can justify this pairing as well. I flip-flopped these two songs back and forth until finally calling it a day and sealing the envelope. I sing both of these in the shower. I own both on vinyl and they’re both not my #1. So much in common. In any other non-Phoebe Bridgers, non CHVRCHES year they could have been #1. Both also exist on the same mid-tempo wavelength that channels A.M. radio and platinum artists of the 70’s. I’ve said nothing about either artist, but you’ve learned dark secrets about my listing convictions and that’s more than enough truth for one day.
“ICU” – Phoebe Bridgers
It was always ever going to be Phoebe Bridgers. Los Angeles’ favorite daughter dictated the moods of everyone she touched this year. It should come as no surprise that Punisher dominated my personal airwaves. When I first heard a Phoebe Bridgers song years ago, I championed this artist because she had something that others didn’t — her own thing, her personal pizzaz, in a sea of imitators. We’ve witnessed her potential grow in a few short years, but I’m convinced there’s still room for more. When Phoebe breaks down “ICU” just beyond the 2-minute mark, it’s easy to consider the song finished… a good, but then — HOLY MOSES! — it rises to a new crescendo, a transcendence above the other great songs on Punisher. The surge of bass and the layering of her vocals channels what I believe to be the purest form of spiritual enlightenment we mortals can achieve.
PREVIOUS “BEST OF” SONG LISTS:
Footnote 2020 Playlists:
The full “Hits” List, basically the sandbox for every song that tickled my fancy during 2020.
2020 Covers, just a compilation of all the fetching covers I enjoyed.