"The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently." - David Graeber
The present becomes the past at a consistent rate of one second per second. With limited exceptions, this is true throughout the universe and has been true since the dawn of recorded time.
It was true for the entirety of 2020, even if it didn’t feel that way. I spent most of the year convinced that it was accelerating, that the present was slipping away faster and faster, deeper into the past, and that once it was gone it was somehow more difficult to access. None of this is true. I’m just telling you how it felt.
I worry that historians will never be able to capture the sheer disorienting speed of our endless year. Our poor ape brains were never meant to process information at this rate. To turn away from our screens for even a matter of seconds guaranteed a fresh wave of BREAKING NEWS queasiness and dread. It was relentless.
It was a year of being told, over and over, at escalating volumes and font sizes and chyron colors, that The World Has Changed, that Everything Is Different, that There Is No Going Back, that This is The New Normal and The Way We Live Now.
The foundational truths that formed the core of our society were now false. Reasonable assumptions were now unreasonable. All predictions were now worthless. We were all physically isolated, stuck in our homes for months at a time, but we were becoming historically isolated as well, cut off from the familiar comforts of a shared past and stuck in our shrinking present.
It was easy to fall into that trap. Go back and read something about the pandemic written in March. Go back and read something about racial justice in America written before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Go back and read something about anything Donald Trump did or said this year written before … I guess any of the other things Donald Trump subsequently did or said this year. It can read like a dispatch from an alternate reality, like we had broken with “normal” to such a degree that the old world has been rendered inaccessible, replaced on an almost daily basis with a new world, progressively more dystopian each time.
It’s not true, though. Most things don’t change. The old world is still here. Even on those BREAKING NEWS days, the world was almost exactly as it had been. There was just one new thing in it, orange skies over California or a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan or the President suggesting that injecting bleach could cure Covid-19.
Each new fact shattered the fragile relationships between all of the previously existing facts. Before we could ever hope to process it, we had to quickly rearrange all the old facts to make the new one fit. It was a full time job, and it didn’t always work.
The worst part of it all was the growing certainty that an infinite number of other shoes would continue to drop, each one widening the chasm between present and past. We would have to keep rearranging forever, adapting to the new cracks in the world. I still wake up every day terrified that an experimental Covid-19 treatment has made Rudy Giuliani immortal, or that somehow the ocean itself is on fire. Why try to understand today’s world when tomorrow’s will just be weirder and more confusing?
The past has always been a foreign country, but now it felt like a foreign country that had sealed its borders and started deporting non-citizens. You can’t go back. You don’t even speak the language anymore.
For most of this year, I was convinced that this disappearing present tense had fundamentally altered our relationship with music. The only way I could process new music was to keep in mind that, with precious few exceptions, these songs come from the past. They were never meant to exist in this specific present tense. I had to set aside the near-constant efforts to paint new releases as having Something to Say about These Uncertain Times. I had to ignore all attempts to position every new high-profile album as The Perfect Quarantine Record.
None of that framing worked for me. Sometimes it seemed cynical, or even offensive. Most of the time it just seemed tone-deaf. These songs were all written in a world not suffering from a global pandemic, in a world not holding its breath waiting for the laziest, sloppiest coup attempt of all time to finally grind to a halt, in a world where multiple QAnon believers were not serving as elected officials in the most powerful nation in the history of the world. How could anyone think that songs written years ago could offer any kind of comment on how it feels to be alive at this particular moment in history?
For everyone in the music business, it was a year of scrambling. Release dates were shuffled constantly, as if we would find the perfect time in the arc of a global pandemic to release a HAIM album. (I don’t think we ever did.) Eventually, all of those projects from the past made their way into our disorienting present, and they all had to make sense of what they found there.
For instance, there were multiple excellent disco revival albums released this year. Why would you ever release a disco revival album into a lonely, despairing world where people could only listen to it quietly in their own homes? Well, you release it because you already recorded it and what are your other options? Hold onto it until 2021? 2022? When exactly? When will it be okay?
For most acts, it was less a search for the proper context as it was a fight for survival. With touring on hold indefinitely, most indie bands did whatever they could to stay afloat, releasing b-sides, old demos, live albums, novelty covers, trying to scrounge enough money to make it until an ever-receding date in the future when they could get back on the road. (Please go buy something from your favorite smaller artists. Do it right now. I won’t be offended if you stop reading this.)
For the few artists who did manage to write, record, and release new music this year, it felt like a fascinating novelty. Post-pandemic music! Music made by artists who have also struggled to understand what an r-number is! And sure, folklore would have been a landmark event in any year, but it seemed even more special this year. An album from the present! The place where we live! It’s like a band being from your hometown.
Through all of the major-label jockeying for position and indie-label cries for help, it was always easier for me to process new music from the starting point that these songs were not written for me or, at the very least, that they were written for a different version of me, one that could go outside and interact with people and maybe not think about the horrors of modern life for even one second. They were written for nightclubs and concert halls and festivals, and none of us got to hear them like that. They were written to be played at excessive volume at 2 AM in a friend’s packed living room, with everyone singing along, and here in Amsterdam we were lucky enough to hear them like that for a few weeks in the summer, I guess, during the lull between waves, but it wasn’t enough.
And I knew I would miss live music but ... wow do I miss live music. I’ve always maintained that live music is basically magic, and I’ve never really tried to explain why it means so much to me, but one thing that it does is that it transposes everything to the present tense. I’ve seen newly formed bands play songs that wouldn’t be recorded and released for months, and I’ve seen the mummified remains of the Rolling Stones play songs that came out fifty years ago, and somehow both were very much present tense experiences. We are all here. We are all experiencing this together, right now. If the purpose of art is to make us feel less alone (and honestly I don’t know if it is, but that sure sounds right), nothing makes me feel less alone than live music. And I didn’t have that this year, and I wondered if that kind of connection was lost forever.
It took its toll on me, far more than it should have. I do have a sense of perspective, and I understand that “will we ever be able to connect with new music in the same way?” was not one of the most pressing questions to be answered in 2020, but still. I thought about it a lot.
Until October, when I first became aware that I was hearing songs from the future. I know that sounds weird. I can explain.
On October 7, a band from New York named Wild Pink released a single called “The Shining But Tropical.”
On October 21, a singer from Germantown, Tennessee named Julien Baker released a single called “Faith Healer.”
What makes these songs uniquely fascinating is that they are lead singles from highly anticipated albums that won’t be released until well into next year (Wild Pink’s A Billion Little Lights February 19, Baker’s Little Oblivions a week later). Those albums have already been written and recorded. In one sense, they already exist in our world. In another sense, though, they won’t exist until people hear them, and so these lead singles act as emissaries from an unknown future.
At first, I was incredulous. We’re still doing four-month album release promo cycles? At this point in history? Think about the pace of change this year. Is there one prediction you could confidently make about what life will be like in late February? Donald Trump still has the launch codes. Tomorrow is promised to no one.
These artists can’t tell us what tomorrow will bring, but they do already know exactly what music they will release into that unknowable future. That’s weird. I know that is literally how the music business has always worked, but at the tail end of 2020 … yeah, still weird.
But once I got over my initial confusion and shock that anyone was attempting to make plans that far into next year, all I could think about was this:
I am so excited to hear those albums.
I didn’t care how they would fit into that unknown future. I just wanted that new music. No matter what, those albums are going to mean something to me. Great art can reach across the chasms of the unknown. Even bad art can do this. Even mass-produced corporate trash can do this. Isn’t that cool? New music is coming!
And, for some reason, when I finally grasped this incredibly basic concept, that new music will continue to exist in a meaningful way no matter what, it finally crystallized for me that I had already been connecting with new music all year, often on a deeper and more personal level than in years past, and I had been doing so despite everything, through the white noise of creeping dread that threatened to engulf us all. Even when it felt like nothing from the past was going to survive. It did.
If there was any shift in the way we consume new music in 2020, it is that the audience took on a much more central role. It was up to us to transpose these songs from the past into the key of the present, to give them a meaning very different from what was intended, and to do it while being consciously aware that we were doing it.
I spent the year repurposing music. You probably did, too. I didn’t have “songs for cycling to the office” anymore, but now I had “songs for aimlessly wandering around with the dog because you just realized it’s 7 PM and you haven’t been outside all day.” I didn’t have “songs for the pre-party before the concert,” but I had “songs for remembering how much fun it used to be to go to concerts” and a totally separate collection of “songs for when it was too painful to think about how much fun it used to be to go to concerts.” I backed off on “awesome new songs I need to send to all of my friends right this second” and transitioned to “awesome new songs I will remember to send to my friends a little bit later but not right this second because they just announced that John Prine died and maybe we should sit with that for a bit.” I didn’t have as many “songs I bet it would be awesome to learn on guitar” but I had way more “songs I might as well try to learn on guitar right now because I can’t go outside and the downstairs neighbors moved out and honestly why not.” The dog is furious.
I found new songs that met me where I was, just like I always have, even when that seemed impossible. I gravitated to artists who tapped into how I was feeling, even if those artists could never have predicted exactly why I was feeling that way. Loneliness. Fear. Doubt. Pessimism, but also sometimes optimism. Excitement. Relief. Triumph. Little slices of light in the darkness, but also little slices of darkness, as required.
In doing so, I realized just how much music was meant to be repurposed. Katie Crutchfield never meant for Saint Cloud to be a Quarantine Album, but her perfectly crafted songs of contemplation and self-reflection got me through plenty of hard times in the early days of the pandemic, and it sure seems like that was her intent all along. And that’s an easy one since it’s a quiet, introspective record that I probably would have listened to alone anyway, but the sentiment is true across the board. It might be weirder to think of something like What’s Your Pleasure? or Future Nostalgia as a Quarantine Album, joyful music meant for large groups and public spaces, but this year those records served their purpose on a smaller scale, bridging gaps and encouraging us to find happiness where we could. Think about this: “WAP” is going to be the #1 song on every year-end list that matters. How could that song have any meaning at all during a global pandemic? How much mind-blowing anonymous sex are any of you having? (Note: Rhetorical question, please do not answer.) And yet …
The world is not yet broken beyond repair. I know it feels like it, but it’s not. Music is still getting through. We are not alone in history. Music from the past can reach us, and will continue to reach us, no matter how alien our present becomes. We just have to make it mean something.
100 Songs for 2020: Notes on the Process
Only 2020 releases are eligible.
Singles released in 2019 from albums released in 2020 are eligible if they weren’t on my 2019 list (so, for instance, Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” is ineligible, Grimes’ “Violence” is eligible but didn’t make the cut).
I have imposed a strict two songs per artist limit (sorry Phoebe, Rina, Taylor, Matty, etc.).
Even beyond that, I used artist diversity as a kind of tiebreaker for making tough cuts. There are artists who probably deserved a second song (sorry Katie, Jessie, Christine, etc.), but I think a more diverse list is more representative of my year.
I generally avoid covers and live material, though I will make exceptions (Miley’s take on “Zombie” is incredible, but not on the list).
I added release dates this year because I think they were especially relevant in 2020 (how quickly was the world ending when you first heard this song?). I added album titles because somehow this wasn’t long enough already.
I’m repurposing some of the content from my Monthly Mix posts, so if you’ve been following the blog all year, you might not get quite as much new material as previous 100 Songs posts.
Finally, this year I tried to shut everything else out and make this a list of my favorite songs, nothing else. I chose album tracks over singles if those were the songs I liked the most, and I tried to avoid making this a Year In Music survey (for instance, Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” is both good and important. It will absolutely be in the documentary someone makes about 2020 someday. But, honestly, I didn’t listen to it that often. It’s not on the list.)
Thanks for listening, thanks for understanding.
1. Waxahatchee - "Fire"
Album: Saint Cloud
Release Date: Jan. 22
I didn’t have a Song of the Year this year. I could make a case for all of my top ten, and most of my top twenty. (I could make a case for #24, but I would have to move away and start a new life after all of my friends disowned me.) My final top four have all held this spot at some point in the list-making process.
But, while I didn’t have a Song of the Year, I absolutely did have an Album of the Year, and that album was Saint Cloud. The record came out on March 27, at the end of a week when the horrors of Covid-19 were becoming undeniable to all but the most extreme denialists (65 deaths in the US on March 20, 417 on March 27), and became a constant companion for me in the weeks (and months) that followed. I found peace in Katie Crutchfield’s reflection on getting sober and learning to love herself, even in a year when I did neither (though, to be fair, I only attempted the latter).
“Fire” was the lead single from Saint Cloud, and to my ear it’s still the best song on the album. Originally released into a pre-pandemic world, “Fire” lost none of its emotional impact through the seismic events that would follow. This placement is a bit of a Lifetime Achievement Award for Crutchfield, but in 2020 it felt right. We’re all wiser and slow and attuned. "For some of us, it ain't enough."
(Side Note: Parts of Saint Cloud were recorded in the same Long Pond studio as folklore).
2. Me Rex - "Stellar Abattoir"
Release Date: Aug. 6
In the musical chairs game of putting this list together, “Stellar Abattoir” probably sat in the top spot longer than any of the other contenders. Despite not being released until August, it was my most-played song of 2020, as its dense lyrics reward repeated listenings like the best Los Campesinos! songs (obviously a foundational influence for Me Rex frontman Myles McCabe). I sketched out a long and painfully personal 100 Songs for 2020 introduction essay based on the couplet “You see two living souls, how alike they are / You forgive yourself, just a little more” but ultimately scrapped it because, let’s be honest, we’ve all been through enough this year.
(Side Note 1: McCabe released a series of EPs on Big Scary Monsters, the Oxford-based label that seemed to have all of the best bands in 2020. When this is all over, one of my first international stops will be the record and beer store they just opened.)
(Side Note 2: Through Me Rex, I also discovered McCabe’s other band, Fresh. Part of my justification for ranking this song so highly is a belated apology for not including “Going to Brighton” on 100 Songs for 2019).
3. Worriers - "Big Feelings"
Album: You or Someone You Know
Release Date: Feb. 14
Lauren Denitzio’s songwriting has reached that point where I love something so much that I completely lose the ability to talk about it. It’s … really good, you guys. I don’t know. They should have sent a poet.
“Put my money on warm hearts and these feelings”
4. Rina Sawayama - "Who's Gonna Save U Now?"
Release Date: Apr. 17
Wikipedia said: “Musically, SAWAYAMA is produced, performed and recorded in a wide variety of genres. Primarily influenced by 2000s mainstream pop, nu metal, rock, R&B, and dance-pop, it also was noted by critics to include elements of arena rock, EDM, avant-pop, hyperpop, electro, house, hair metal, hip-hop, experimental, synthpop, bubblegum pop, emo pop, grunge, industrial, dubstep, country pop, pop rock, gospel, glam rock, trap, trip hop, folk, J-pop and electro-dub.” So … that’s all the genres, right? Did we miss any?
Hyperbole aside, SAWAYAMA truly does have something for everyone. Rina has released five singles so far, and this song isn’t one of them, but it’s my favorite (and I think it will show up on a few other Guest Lists from the Amsterdam set). If you’re wondering about the mindset needed to become a global pop star, it’s the mindset where you write a perfect stadium-rock anthem, complete with a rocket-launch key change and a crowd chanting your name, and then bury it toward the end of your debut album.
We have tickets to see Rina in London next November, and honestly the only indicator anyone needs for whether 2021 was a good year is whether or not that show happens.
5. Simmy - "Ngihamba Nawe"
Album: Tugela Fairy (Made of Stars)
Release Date: Mar. 23
In the ancient, long-forgotten days of February 2020, Ilana and I were lucky enough to spend some time wandering around Southern Africa. It was everything we hoped it would be, and more (the “and more” is that, even back in February, even at dirt-road border crossings into Botswana, we had to pass multiple Covid-19 protocols, compared to absolutely no precautions, coming or going, in Amsterdam). We ended our time there in Cape Town, a fascinating place, equal parts captivating and problematic, perfect weather and pristine beaches sitting uncomfortably close to devastating poverty and the prominent remains of apartheid. I wondered, as a tourist in a place like that, even a conscientious tourist, if I was making things better or worse.
"Ngihamba Nawe," from South Africa native Simmy, encapsulates a lot of those feelings for me. It is three and a half minutes of perfect, untouchable calm. It is sunshine in a bottle, uplifting and relaxing at the same time. For the majority of 2020, it was my escape, my happy place when I needed a break from the horrors of the world.
At some point, though, I began to wonder if I even deserved a break, if someone like me, living at the height of privilege, should really be broadcasting the fact that I was choosing to tune out a global pandemic, and a wave of police brutality, and the global rise of fascism and white supremacy, and a record-setting number of hurricanes and wildfires, and a worldwide recession teetering on the brink of a depression. Now, mind you, I’m not saying I needed a break from experiencing those things. I’m saying I needed a break from even hearing about those things. That doesn’t sit right with me, and I’m still trying to sort out exactly how I feel about that.
None of that, however, is Simmy’s fault. Like I said, she has given us three and a half minutes of perfect, untouchable calm. It is a gift to the world. Use it how you see fit.
6. Bad Moves - "Toward Crescent Park"
Release Date: Jun. 26
For reasons I can’t quite explain, the refrain “no one here needs you to be anybody” was incredibly comforting to me this year. Untenable is a fantastic record from a fantastic band, falling more to the pop side of the pop-punk spectrum, but still flashing some sharp edges when necessary. It’s energetic and open-hearted and its politics are impeccable. “Toward Crescent Park” was my personal standout, but there were plenty to choose from. Picking two Bad Moves songs for this list was tough.
7. Taylor Swift - "exile" (f/ Bon Iver)
Release Date: Jul. 24
This might be a weird thing to say, but I feel like it’s getting harder to have original opinions about new music. For the most part, if I hear a new song, it has been recommended in some form, even if “recommended” here could just mean a retweet from a source I trust. Even the announcement of a new song/album somewhere like Pitchfork or Stereogum will include a quick description, and it will usually be apparent whether the writer likes the song or not. So, 99% of the time, I approach a new song with at least some preconceived notions. It’s not like the old days of MTV or Top 40 radio where a song was more likely to be presented context-free, through a medium that I know includes the best and worst new music, with everything in between, and I could make my own decisions.
Event Albums like folklore are one of the few times I get to listen to something before the critical consensus has already formed. And, on first listen, I fell in love with “exile.” For me, it was two artists at the tops of their respective games, perfectly complementing each other. On further listens, I only liked it more.
So you can imagine my surprise when I found out that most critics don’t really care for this song, and a few outright hate it. I have read multiple reviews calling it the worst song on the album (or the only song the reviewer skips, or words to that effect).
This time of year, as list-making season heats up and it becomes easier and easier to identify the year's conventional wisdom, I start to fall into the trap of thinking that songs are objectively good or bad, or that I could somehow be wrong when I say that I, personally, like something.
Not this year. “exile” is still great.
8. Phoebe Bridgers - "Chinese Satellite"
Release Date: Jun. 18
“Kyoto” got the Grammy nominations, “Garden Song” seems to be getting the majority of the year-end critical love, but for me this was the standout track on Punisher.
Phoebe’s whole career could probably be described as a quiet scream, but “Chinese Satellite” has one of the best quiet screams I can remember. Everything cuts out before the “Sometimes when I can't sleep / It's just a matter of time before I'm hearing things” couplet, and then slowly builds up through the “Swore I could feel you through the walls” line, so by the time she gets to the payoff (“BUT THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE”) it feels like she’s delivering that line at the top of her lungs from directly inside your head. Then, when you listen to it again, you realize she barely increased volume at all. I don’t know how she does that.
Add the strings, a verse about arguing with religious fundamentalists, and the couplet “I want to believe / Instead I look at the sky and I feel nothing” and yeah, this is peak Phoebe for me. The platonic ideal of Phoebe. If you feel that way about a different song from Punisher, I totally get it.
(Side Note: Between this and Billy Bragg’s “A New England,” fully 100% of songs about mistaking a satellite for a star are awesome. That’s just science.)
9. Wild Pink - "The Shining But Tropical"
Album: A Billion Little Lights
Release Date: Oct. 7
“You wanted peace, you wanted love / You deserve that much.”
I’ve always been a fan of Wild Pink (they’ve appeared in this list before), but 2020 was the year their particular brand of dreamy rock vibes truly clicked for me. I would bet that their 2018 album Yolk in the Fur was the record I listened to from start to finish most often. It’s comforting without being boring, textured without being muddy, nostalgic without being derivative. I could not be more excited for A Billion Little Lights to be a big part of my 2021 soundtrack.
10. Meet Me @ The Altar - "Garden"
Release Date: Jun. 2
Three women of color (ages 19, 19, and 21), two of whom are gay. The best pop-punk song I’ve heard in years. Written, recorded and performed with a joyful weightlessness that seems impossible given that they have the weight of an entire generation of rock-loving brown girls on their shoulders.
I’m wary of further burdening them with more unwarranted cultural signifiers, but no, they know exactly what they’re doing: "We wanted to write a super energetic song that was really positive, because a lot of pop-punk isn’t positive. It’s about white dudes, crying over their girlfriends.”
Go burn Warped Tour to the ground, girls.
11. The 1975 - "The Birthday Party"
Album: Notes on a Conditional Form
Release Date: Feb. 19
There are some bands that I will defend to the death, and if you say one bad thing about them I will hold a grudge against you forever (for instance, the bands immediately before and after this one). The 1975 are not one of those bands. I truly, truly love them, a fact evidenced by this list and many previous lists (Song of the Year in 2016!), but whenever I read an article critical of them, I usually get to the end, nod, and mumble “yeah, that sounds about right” to myself. Somehow, every good and bad thing written about these guys is true.
If we’re going to talk about the music for a second (and, honestly, why start now), the coda on this song (starting at about 3:29, when the horns come in) is one of the most beautiful, emotionally resonant minutes of music I heard all year.
12. Pinkshift - "i'm gonna tell my therapist on you"
Release Date: Jul. 31
A thrilling update on No Doubt by way of Paramore, brought to you by four self-described “rat city rock nerds.” (Rat City, I have learned, is Baltimore). If frontwoman Ashrita Kumar is not a massive star by this time next year, there is something wrong with the music industry.
(Side Note: Frontwoman Ashrita Kumar will very likely not be a massive star by this time next year, because there is something wrong with the music industry.)
When I talk about how cool it would be to start a record label, or a recording studio, or a small all-ages venue, what I am really saying is, “how can I help bands like Pinkshift take over the world?”
13. Christine and the Queens - "People, I've been sad"
Album: La vita nuova
Release Date: Feb. 25
To me, the most impressive thing about Christine and the Queens is that all of her music sounds completely different and yet it all sounds like her.
14. HAIM - "The Steps"
Album: Women in Music Pt. III
Release Date: Mar. 3
One of the best things about HAIM is that they have completely destroyed the idea that new bands have to have the “right” influences, that to earn credibility a new band has to spend the majority of their interviews referencing obscure and difficult acts barely anyone has heard of (and even fewer people actually enjoy). Instead of struggling to come up with a way to claim their sound is actually inspired by Joy Division or something, HAIM embraced the Fleetwood Mac comparisons from day one, and Women in Music Pt. III is nothing if not a love letter to Sheryl Crow and a generation of under-appreciated late-90s alt-rock women. This is how we get a generation of up and coming stars from Phoebe Bridgers to Soccer Mommy shouting out everyone from the Goo Goo Dolls to Avril Lavigne. It’s a great trend. Indie bands: don’t be afraid to admit you grew up listening to the same fun, popular music we all did!
15. Bartees Strange - "Mustang"
Album: Live Forever
Release Date: Jul. 22
Every year gets the “Wolf Like Me” it deserves. Like the original, “Mustang” is a blast of rock urgency, a scream across the sky. However, where the original was all lupine ferocity and swagger, this year’s version includes lyrics like “waking up was hard this year,” “I lie for a living now / that’s why I really can’t tell you stuff,” and “I hate America.” Sounds about right.
(Side Note 1: Strange’s debut album, Live Forever, is a fascinating record, probably the best genre scramble of the year. I went with the lead single and most traditional rock song for this list, but if you want to get a little weird, I suggest you throw on the whole thing.)
(Side Note 2: Far and away the best trend in music this year was the increased prominence of and visibility of rock music made by artists who are not straight white men, and especially rock music made by Black artists, like Strange. I’m wary of comparing these artists to other Black rock acts (like I did here with TV on the Radio, and like I will do with at least one other artist on this list) since I really don’t want to pigeonhole them, but on the other hand Strange has talked about how much it meant to him growing up to hear an awesome rock song and later find out that it was made by a Black artist, and how much he loves “Wolf Like Me” specifically, so maybe it’s not surprising that these new artists share some similar reference points. I don’t have an answer here, just saying I’m aware of it.)
16. Jessie Ware - "Soul Control"
Album: What’s Your Pleasure?
Release Date: Jun. 26
I worried that the brilliant What’s Your Pleasure? would be overlooked given the other, bigger disco revival albums that came out this year (Dua, Kylie, etc.), but thankfully Jessie seems to be receiving all the critical love she deserves (and I know Ilana will have more to say about it in her post). The fact that she has released six singles so far and “Soul Control” isn’t one of them is either (a) a testament to the incredible depth of the album, (b) a tragedy on par with “Cruel Summer” last year, or (c) both.
17. Rico Nasty - "IPHONE"
Album: Nightmare Vacation
Release Date: Aug. 13
This is the lowest-ranked song that I considered for Song of the Year, mostly because I had an idea for an essay about how the shifting trends in Future Pop mirror the changes in the way society actually thinks about the future. The short version is that Future Pop used to mean chiptune and the PC Music family of artists. Everything was clean and retrofuturistic in a bubbly way. That future seemed a little Jetsons-y, but you could see yourself living there happily. Future Pop now means Hyperpop and the stable of artists and producers forming around 100 gecs (Dylan Brady from 100 gecs produced this). Everything is fuzzy and distorted and disintegrating. It’s somehow dark and bright at the same time, like a neon sign flickering to death in a back alley. It’s a Blade Runner future at best. You will die there.
Anyway, that’s a massive oversimplification on all sides. PC Music still exists, and not everything they do gives off that feel of fizzy optimism. Hyperpop isn’t all decay. It’s really easy to make an argument centered on the premise that we now fear the future more than we used to.
All of that would just take away from the bulletproof titanium miracle that is “IPHONE.” Multiple times, while listening to this song, I have found myself absentmindedly online shopping for better headphones. It is not possible to listen to this song loud enough. I want to get to the point where I’m not so much hearing sounds as feeling tremors.
18. Perfume Genius - "Describe"
Album: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Release Date: Feb. 25
A massive swirl of distortion and disorientation, with Mike Hadreas in the middle, carefully trying to feel his way out.
19. Soccer Mommy - "circle the drain"
Album: color theory
Release Date: Jan. 14
If Rina Sawayama threw the entirety of TRL-era MTV into a blender for SAWAYAMA, Sophie Allison basically did the same with those MTV Buzz Bin collections for color theory. The idea, which has proven true in both cases, is that if you blend enough disparate influences, you get something completely original. If we’re limiting ourselves to Covid-safe rock and roll fantasies, I think “making a collaborative playlist of obscure late-90s alt-rock songs with Sophie Allison” would be on my list.
20. Phoebe Bridgers - "I Know the End"
Release Date: Jun. 18
I realize that very few of you are interested in the behind the scenes details of how I put this list together, but I just have to say that “I Know the End” vs. “ICU” was the single toughest decision I had to make. “ICU” is brilliant, and certainly deserving of this spot, but I do think it shares a lot of DNA with “Me and My Dog” (which, again, was my Song of the Year two years ago, so that’s hardly a dig) while “I Know the End” represents Phoebe expanding her sound a little bit.
Since Phoebe might be the coolest artist we have right now, let’s close this one out by mentioning two very uncool things. This song reminds me of: (a) Illinois-era Sufjan Stevens and (b) the scene in Garden State where they all scream into that big hole.
21. Megan Thee Stallion - "Savage" (Remix f/ Beyonce)
Album: Good News
Release Date: Apr. 29
Somehow, all of things things about this song that I thought would get annoying over time (“okay!”) have actually become more endearing. I think a lot of that comes from how likeable Megan Thee Stallion is, both on this song and in real life. She became the breakout star of 2020 for reasons both positive (“WAP,” “Savage,” just generally being really good at music), negative (getting shot in the foot), and somehow both (her searing SNL performance in the wake of the decision not to charge Breonna Taylor’s killers), and honestly one of the main reasons I have come to love this song so much is that every time I hear it I can’t stop thinking about how incredible it must have felt for a girl from Houston, toiling in obscurity not that long ago, to be trading verses with Beyonce on her own song. Maybe not the cleanest path to her dreams coming true, but I’m glad she got there.
(Side Note: One of two reasonable choices for Song of the Summer 2020, but I’m giving the title to the other one.)
22. Grimes - "Delete Forever"
Album: Miss Anthropocene
Release Date: Feb. 12
I reserve the right to change my opinion in the future when we've all been enslaved by Elon Musk's demon spawn, but as of right now Ms. Boucher can pretty much do no wrong.
23. Julien Baker - "Faith Healer"
Album: Little Oblivions
Release Date: Oct. 21
Don’t get me wrong, I love sparse, intimate, Turn Out the Lights Julien Baker. She could have kept doing that forever and I would have been perfectly content. But I could not be more excited by the idea of full-band Julien Baker, and if this song is an accurate representation of her upcoming album Little Oblivions, that’s exactly what we’re getting. (When I say “full band” here, of course I mean “Julien Baker plays a full band worth of instruments.” She’s still in control down to the most minute detail.)
24. Sam Hunt - "Hard to Forget"
Release Date: Mar. 9
When I put this song on my April Monthly Mix, I said I could write 5,000 words about it. Most of you probably thought I was joking but I did, in fact, write a 4,000 word, largely autobiographical short story-ish essay about it. It was that kind of year. (If you ask, I’ll let you read it, but you have to promise not to share it with anyone else.)
25. Dua Lipa - "Break My Heart"
Album: Future Nostalgia
Release Date: Mar. 25
Expectations, man. The downside to “Don’t Start Now” being an entirely perfect song is that of course Future Nostalgia was never going to live up to that standard. After setting the bar that high, it’s probably not surprising that “Physical” seemed like a disappointment to me, and months later I’m still surprised to see it getting so much year-end critical love. By the time “Break My Heart” was released as a single a few months later, the world had melted and I was more open to approaching Dua singles from the perspective of “is it good?” rather than “is it as good as ‘Don’t Start Now’?” And this one is good.
26. The Foxies - "Anti Socialite"
Album: Growing Up Is Dead
Release Date: Apr. 28
In the video, they play dodgeball, and John Oates from Hall and Oates guest stars as the gym coach. If you’re imagining what a band who would make that video would sound like, you are going to be very close.
27. Kississippi - "Around Your Room"
Release Date: Oct. 8
It would be funny to say this is the best Taylor Swift song of the year, but that’s not actually true. It is, however, the best 1989-era Taylor Swift song of the year, which is worth something. Indie artists who suddenly decide to make pop music is one of my favorite genres.
28. Ethan Gruska - "Enough for Now" (f/Phoebe Bridgers)
Album: En Garde
Release Date: Jan. 10
The Phoebe Bridgers Extended Universe is a fascinating place, because as she expands her collaborative horizons (The 1975, Kid Cudi, Hayley Williams) and strengthens her connections with exactly the people you would expect (Maggie Rogers, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus), she always has time for her less-famous friends from the LA scene, like Christian Lee Hutson or, this year, Ethan Gruska. Gruska’s work is strong on its own, but I’ll confess I never would have checked for him if I hadn’t seen that (f/Phoebe Bridgers) on it.
29. 2nd Grade - "Summer of Your Dreams"
Album: Hit to Hit
Release Date: May 29
(I am aware that the following blurb might make me sound like a crazy person.) This song took on a life of its own this year and became a kind of weird, bittersweet inside joke I had with myself, if such a thing is possible. It shows up toward the end of 2nd Grade’s sprawling, wonderful Hit to Hit, a touching, lo-fi song about kids who are absolutely not having the summer of their dreams. I don’t know if the chorus is meant to be hopeful, or wistful, or sarcastic, but somehow it became all three.
Summer 2020 was not the summer of anyone’s dreams. We fought against the advancing and receding waves of Covid-19. We recoiled in horror at the vulgar displays of police brutality and white supremacy that seemed to emanate from the US on an almost hourly basis. And yet, in Amsterdam anyway, we found a way to sneak in a few fun times, when the rules were relaxed, when limited travel was possible. And in the quiet moments before or after those wonderful salvaged days, in a park or on a beach or in another country, I often found myself humming this song. “Are you ready for the summer? Are you ready for the summer? Are you ready for the summer of your dreams?” I’m still not sure how to answer that.
30. I'm Glad It's You - "The Silver Cord"
Album: Every Sun, Every Moon
Release Date: Apr. 7
I don’t know how to test this, but my working hypothesis is that if both Ian Cohen and Hanif Abdurraqib love something, I am 100% guaranteed to love it, too. I’m Glad It’s You hits that Oso Oso sweet spot, where on paper it looks like emo, but they write such incredibly catchy hooks that somehow it ends up sounding closer to Britpop. I don’t know how that happens, it’s alchemy. Every Sun, Every Moon is a deep album, and this spot could easily have gone to “Big Sound” or “Silent Ceremony.”
31. Shamir - "On My Own"
Release Date: Jun. 10
Six years after the breakout pop fun of “On the Regular,” Shamir is back and making exactly the music he wants to make. Every artist should be so lucky.
32. The Killers - "Caution"
Album: Imploding the Mirage
Release Date: Mar. 12
You know that 2020 feeling where you see a stray bit of news, maybe a headline, maybe the first few words of an embedded link on social media, and you think, "hmm, that sounds bad," then later you learn more about it and it is inevitably even worse than you thought it would be?
Well, here is the exact opposite of that. I could not possibly have had lower expectations for a Killers album, but somehow it's great? Like, really, legitimately great? I don't get it either, but I am so excited to use the words "pleasantly surprised" for the first time in what seems like years.
33. Lady Gaga - "Rain On Me" (f/ Ariana Grande)
Release Date: May 22
Song of the Summer, for whatever that was worth this year. (“WAP” wasn’t released until August 7, you can’t be a Summer Jam if you missed most of the summer.)
As a trial lawyer, they teach you that you can’t run from the bad facts of your case. If your opponent is the first to bring them up, it comes off like a dramatic reveal, like you were trying to hide something, and it makes those facts seem even more important. Conversely, if you bring them up first, and offer an explanation, it comes off like you have everything under control and those facts aren’t really that important.
I mention this because I’ve been making this list since 2008 and somehow “Rain on Me” is the first time Lady Gaga has made an appearance. I didn’t want you to have to hear it from someone else. (I have no explanation.)
34. All Time Low - "Some Kind of Disaster"
Album: Wake Up, Sunshine
Release Date: Jan. 21
There are thousands of reasons I miss live music, but an underrated one is “standing on the floor between bands waiting for the headliner to come on, absentmindedly Shazam-ing the set break soundtrack, and discovering gems like this one.” At least I got to do that for a couple months in 2020.
35. Oceanator - "A Crack In The World"
Album: Things I Never Said
Release Date: Jun. 25
Another band that’s really just the singular vision of one person, and I just have to say that I like music better when it’s packaged that way. I like this song slightly more as “Oceanator” than I would have as “Elise Okusami,” and I’d love to know how much thought she, or anyone else, put into that decision. Like, did Julien Baker think about inventing a band instead of releasing music under her own name? What about Bartees Strange? Conversely, why did Sophie Allison go with the Soccer Mommy moniker? Please subscribe to my newsletter, where I ask artists this question and this question only.
36. City Mouth - "Sanity for Summer"
Album: Coping Machine
Release Date: Apr. 24
I think this is the only song on the list taking advantage of the “2019 Single, 2020 Album” rule, and that’s because I honestly hadn’t heard of the band until very recently. If you’re looking for “Fall Out Boy, but 100% sparklier,” boy do I have a song for you. Chicago bands never fall too far from the tree.
37. Riverby - "Smart Mouth"
Album: Smart Mouth
Release Date: Jul. 3
Literally discovered this band because their Twitter name was “Gay Avril Lavigne.” Does not disappoint. Further proof that literally every good band still comes from Philadelphia.
38. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - "Be Afraid"
Release Date: Feb. 10
Between Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee), Michael Hadreas (Perfume Genius), and Matty Healy (The 1975) one of the most positive trends this year was artists getting sober and proceeding to make some of the best work of their careers (in Waxahatchee's case, I would say the very best). Jason Isbell has been sober for years now and just keeps making compelling, narrative-driven rock songs like “Be Afraid,” and honestly just about every song on Reunions would have been deserving of this ranking. In the past, I know I've fallen victim to the dangerous lie that, when it comes to art, sober = boring, and I hope this year puts that to bed for good.
39. The Chicks - "Gaslighter"
Release Date: Mar. 4
You know those people who think they are being clever by pointing out that nothing in Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" is actually ironic? That's basically how I feel about the use of "gaslight" here. Still a great song, though.
40. Woods - "Light of Day"
Album: Strange to Explain
Release Date: May 22
A pleasant, shuffling song that explodes into one of the best choruses of the year.
41. Sauti Sol - "Brighter Days" (f/ Soweto Gospel Choir)
Album: Midnight Train
Release Date: Apr. 17
From the first note of that opening bass riff, this is a thick slice of pan-African joy. In 2020, it was the canary in the coal mine of my mental health. Most days, it sounded great. Some days, though, it sounded like unearned, cliched optimism, written to prey on your emotions, a big, dumb pop song with no place in our broken world. On those days, this song was a reminder that I needed to go for a walk, or set work aside to play guitar for a bit, or check in with a friend. In the process of putting this list together, I have convinced myself that it should be about twenty spots higher, and also that it shouldn’t be on the list at all. We’re still up and down over here.
42. Banoffee - "Count On You"
Album: Look At Us Now Dad
Release Date: Jan. 15
You know me. You know I wouldn't say something like "Imagine if Charli XCX wrote 'I Know a Place'" unless I really meant it.
43. I Love Your Lifestyle - "Car"
Album: No Driver
Release Date: Oct. 8
Like all Swedes, I Love Your Lifestyle has that Massive Pop Hooks songwriting gene, but apparently they’ve decided it’s more fun to be an indie band than it is to be Max Martin. They refer to themselves as “pop-emo-indie-rock-medium speed music,” and they sound like a combination of most of the least cool bands that I still love wholeheartedly (The Shins, Shout Out Louds, Band of Horses, etc.)
44. Fiona Apple - "Cosmonauts"
Album: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Release Date: Apr. 17
If you’re looking for Fiona Apple hot takes, you’ve come to the wrong place. Fetch the Bolt Cutters was strikingly original, the kind of innovative record that maybe only she could make, and yet I find myself appreciating it without really enjoying it. The album deserves all of the accolades it received, and yet I’m sure I haven’t listened to it for at least six months. For this list, I went with the most traditional rock song, because I am very basic.
45. KennyHoopla - "how will i rest in peace if i'm buried by a highway?//"
Release Date: Feb. 4
The best Bloc Party song since at least 2007, if not 2005. Like Bartees Strange and TV on the Radio, I assumed that KennyHoopla had grown up idolizing Bloc Party, which makes perfect sense as a young Black man drawn to rock music, so you can imagine my surprise when NME said that he “is still deep in his obsession for Kele Okereke and co, having discovered them around a year ago.” One year ago. It seems impossible that he could so thoroughly capture a band’s essence, and use it to make something this inspired yet not derivative, in one year. Do you think he could do this with any band? Is he taking requests? Like, if we’re sticking with 2005, could I just show up in the studio like: "Architecture in Helsinki, GO! Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, GO!"
46. The Beths - "Dying to Believe"
Album: Jump Rope Gazers
Release Date: Apr. 8
To paraphrase Sean Doolittle (who was himself paraphrasing someone else): Indie pop is the reward of a functioning society. I’m not saying The Beths are directly responsible for New Zealand’s quick and clinical defeat of Covid-19, but … no, wait, I am saying that.
47. BLACKSTARKIDS - "SOUNDS LIKE FUN"
Release Date: Feb. 28
This is the awesome power of rock music. This is why I am willing to fight for it even when it looks like it is past its expiration date as a genre. SURF a fresh, fun record that sounds like something anyone could have made, until you actually try to do it and realize it’s pretty much impossible. DIY albums like this are traditionally the birthright of white kids from New York or London, but this time it’s three Black kids from Kansas City, and if you’re trying to figure out why SURF sounds so original while working within an established sonic framework … well, it’s that. It's hard to figure out what "success" means for an indie band at this point, when both "record sales" and "ticket sales" are terms from a bygone era, but they just signed to The 1975's label and they’ve become regulars on Spotify's New Music Friday playlist, so I'm choosing to believe they are blowing up, as they should.
48. The Mountain Goats - "Get Famous"
Album: Getting Into Knives
Release Date: Sep. 14
Decades into a prolific career, The Mountain Goats are doing a commendable job staying fresh and relevant and, just like their spiritual counterparts in The Hold Steady, the key to their continued success can be summed up in one word: horns. Other bands, take note. I look forward to, like, Pinkshift becoming a full-on ska band in 2040.
49. illuminati hotties - "frequent letdown"
Album: Free I.H.: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For
Release Date: Jul. 17
Sarah Tudzin faced an impossible dilemma in 2020. She was going through a contentious split with her label and owed them an album. The desire to give them some unmarketable garbage must have been high. At the same time, she was still gaining new fans every day on the strength of 2018’s Kiss Yr Frenemies, and of course she didn’t want to torpedo her newfound popularity with that unmarketable garbage we were just talking about.
But, because Sarah Tudzin is a genius, the album she came up with, Free I.H.: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For, splits the difference perfectly. It’s a mixtape for sure - it’s short and disjointed and was very obviously written and recorded in a matter of days, so it has that spite factor - and yet it’s still interesting and catchy and … really, really good. If you were put in a situation where it was in your best interests to do a bad job at work, there’s no way the result would be this much fun.
The next “real” Illuminati Hotties album is going to change music as we know it.
50. Beyonce - "BLACK PARADE"
Release Date: Jun. 19
Look, we all have our unrealized Beyonce dreams. I want her to go full Afrofuturist, like Janelle Monae if she listened to even more Fela Kuti. Basically, I want her to make an album that sounds the way Black is King looks, and yes, I was disappointed that she just repurposed those Lion King songs for that project, but Beyonce works in mysterious ways. For now, “BLACK PARADE” is a worthy placeholder for whatever comes next.
51. Bad Moves - "Cape Henlopen"
Release Date: May 28
An insanely catchy indie pop song about (a) trying to escape the gender binary and (b) going to a beach in Delaware. I love this band so much.
52. Annie - "The Streets Where I Belong"
Album: Dark Hearts
Release Date: Sep. 11
Fifteen years ago, it looked like Annie would be where Robyn is now, the innovative Scandinavian pop star riding a wave of critical acclaim to global stardom. Her single “Chewing Gum” was Pitchfork’s #1 song in 2004. (“Be Mine!” was #21 a year later). Instead, she has only released one album between then and now, 2009’s Don’t Stop. I honestly don’t know anything about her, so I don’t know if she sees it as a disappointment or a relief that she’s not an international icon, but she’s back this year with Dark Hearts, an cold, crystalline album with multiple standout tracks, the best being “The Streets Where I Belong,” a shimmering tribute to her home of Bergen, Norway.
53. Bleachers - "chinatown" (f/ Bruce Springsteen)
Release Date: Nov. 16
If we’re focusing on the bright spots of this year (and we should!), one of the brightest for me is that I started writing for The Singles Jukebox, one of my all-time favorite websites. My name now shows up next to critics I have read for more than fifteen years. It still doesn’t feel real. Anyway, “chinatown” was my first review for the site, and just by virtue of that, it will always have a special place in my heart.
54. Floral Tattoo - "She"
Album: You Can Never Have a Long Enough Head Start
Release Date: Jan. 3
To quote frontperson Alex Anderson, “It’s kind of about growing up, kind of about being trans, kind of about getting better, and kind of about arson.” The 2020 anthem we needed.
55. Dizzy - "Sunflower"
Release Date: Feb. 26
Let’s keep letting artists explain their songs to us! Dizzy frontwoman Katie Munshaw calls this one “a three and a half minute ‘snap out of it!’ to myself when I’m feeling low, unconfident or not myself.” The perfect midpoint between Soccer Mommy and Maggie Rogers, which could only be accomplished by Canadians.
56. Susanne Sundfør - "When The Lord"
Album: Self Portrait (soundtrack)
Release Date: Jan. 8
Maybe you're not really into god-damaged orchestral Scandinavian pop, and that's fine, but you're missing one of the great choruses of the year. It’s a world away from 2015’s Ten Love Songs, which I know comes as a disappointment to some, but it’s great in its own right.
57. Sløtface - "Stuff"
Album: Sorry for the late reply
Release Date: Jan. 31
Ignore the fact that they’re ranked below Susanne Sundfør - they’re still my favorite Norwegians. Sorry for the late reply is a consistently great melodic punk album, but I'm highlighting this one because I respect a Britpop homage. It's like they're consciously angling to open for a Blur reunion tour.
58. The Hold Steady - "Family Farm"
Album: Open Door Policy
Release Date: Dec. 1
This is a weird place to start, but: I am afraid to die. I don’t mind admitting it. When people say they aren’t afraid of death because they are at peace, they have lived a full life and have no regrets, I honestly don’t believe them. There is always more to see, more to do, more to accomplish, and I always feel a low-level anxiety living with the knowledge that I will never check off every item on my bucket list. (Side Note: I do not have a bucket list.)
I say all that by means of introduction because, on March 7, I flew to London to see my favorite band in the world (Martha) open for my favorite band of all time (The Hold Steady). I spent the day wandering one of my favorite cities, hung out at one of my favorite bookstores (Housman’s), ate great Indian and Jamaican food, and got a beer at one of Karl Marx’s favorite bars. I arrived at the venue before the doors opened, got a spot right up against the stage (though off to the side in an attempt to inconvenience the fewest people with my freakish height) and watched two flawless sets, surrounded by other superfans screaming all the words. Martha were at the height of their powers, reveling in the spotlight of a bigger London club than they could probably headline on their own, and the full-strength Hold Steady (with Franz back in the band, assisted by a fantastic horn section) reminded me over and over again of why I fell in love with them in the first place, so many years ago.
The next week, the world ended.
I don’t know if a post-vaccine world will ever go back to normal. I don’t know if I will ever be able to do all of the traveling I had planned, and in that respect I do have regrets. Concerts, though, that’s a different matter. If concerts never go back to the way they were before, I will be very sad, and I will always hear new bands through the bittersweet filter of “oh man, I bet this would be great live.”
But regrets? None. I saw Martha open for The Hold Steady at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. I am at peace.
59. Chappell Roan - "Pink Pony Club"
Release Date: Apr. 3
I honestly don’t know if this song is good, and I don’t care. Due to the fact that one of my friends spent the year completely obsessed with it, and many other friends quickly joined him in the Chappell Roan fan club, “Pink Pony Club” was the soundtrack to just about every enjoyable moment I had in 2020. For that brief window in the Amsterdam summer when restrictions were relaxed and we could rent boats, or sit on rooftops, or meet in parks, “Pink Pony Club” was always there. I am confident that, decades from now, I will hear this song and smile.
60. J Hus - "Repeat" (f/ Koffee)
Album: Big Conspiracy
Release Date: Jan. 23
I really relate to J Hus here. I would also like to record a song where I just hang out while Koffee does literally all of the rapping, and then the end result is a great song with my name on it. 2021 Goals, I guess.
61. Young Jesus - "(un)knowing"
Album: Welcome to Conceptual Beach
Release Date: Jul. 22
Half of the reviews talk about Young Jesus as a jam band, the other half talk about them as an emo band (and, to be fair, some talk about them as both). I would have thought that was impossible, and yet it makes sense. So, combine two unpopular genres and a sacrilegious band name, and I don’t know how they exist at all, but I’m glad they do.
62. Jeff Rosenstock - "The Beauty of Breathing"
Album: NO DREAM
Release Date: May 20
I have no idea how songwriters deal with the pace of world events. Rosenstock wrote this song well before the world fell into the grip of Covid-19, and it's pretty clearly about battling personal demons ("I'm tired of knowing what about myself is wrong / But never mustering up the control / To really try and change it"), but it's also called "The Beauty of Breathing" at a time when thousands are dying from a respiratory virus, and it includes lyrics like:
I walk outside and people say, "Hey!"
And sometimes I just wanna say
"Hey! Go away! Go away!"
So I guess I better stay inside
So it's hard not to view it as an anthem for our bizarre, socially-distanced lives, and ...
I have no idea how songwriters deal with the pace of world events. Rosenstock wrote this song well before the United States succumbed to a historic wave of police brutality, and it's pretty clearly about battling personal demons ("I'm tired of knowing what about myself is wrong / But never mustering up the control / To really try and change it"), but it's also called "The Beauty of Breathing" at a time when the singular image seared into our collective brain is a man with a knee on his neck, fighting for air, and it includes lyrics like:
Maybe someday I'll wanna breathe
And maybe the people that I meet
Won't lead to a certain future where
So it's hard not to view it as an indictment of our senseless, terrifying police state, and ...
Or, you know what:
I have no idea how songwriters deal with the pace of world events, but ending your song by yelling "And that's why I'm so fucking sad!" has a pretty good chance of keeping you eternally relevant.
63. Cicala - "Truck Stop"
Release Date: Nov. 11
At the time of writing, this song had 4,701 plays on Spotify. I’m not going to go through all of them one by one, but I’ll wager that’s the lowest total of any song on this list. So, if everyone reading this could listen to this song maybe a hundred times each, that would be awesome. They deserve it.
64. Taylor Swift - "mirrorball" (long pond version)
Album: folklore: the long pond studio sessions
Release Date: Nov. 25
I don’t know if the “live” version of “mirrorball” is actually better than the studio version (they’re both great), but long pond studio sessions was so much better than I expected that I wanted it to be represented here. Normally I have a pretty low tolerance for songs where celebrities sing about how hard it is to be a celebrity, but for whatever reason I felt a connection with this one.
This changes all the time, but for right now I’ll say my top five from folklore goes: (1) “exile” (2) “mirrorball” (3) “the last great american dynasty” (4) “august” (5) “betty.” I have not yet even begun to process evermore.
65. Busta Rhymes - "Look Over Your Shoulder" (f/ Kendrick Lamar)
Album: Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God
Release Date: Oct. 29
A Jackson 5 sample, a Kendrick feature, and Busta is still the star of the show. Impressive!
66. Troye Sivan - "Easy"
Album: In a Dream
Release Date: Jul. 15
I’ve always been a little bit lukewarm on Troye Sivan, but it turns out all I really wanted him to do was make a Röyksopp song. The Kacey Musgraves remix doesn’t really add anything, but anytime Kacey is making new music it’s a gift.
67. The 1975 - "Me & You Together Song"
Album: Notes on a Conditional Form
Release Date: Jan. 16
After years spent moving in a more transgressive direction both lyrically ("Love It If We Made It") and sonically ("People"), The 1975’s first release this year was a straight-ahead pop song whose lyrics could be the plot to a sappy rom com. And yet it's still great.
68. Rina Sawayama - "Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)"
Release Date: Jan. 17
Back in January, I said, “If there was some way to wager on a song becoming a massive hit, I would put some cash down on this one.” I’m not sure if that bet would pay out or not, but she certainly became the breakout star of my friend group.
69. Perfume Genius - "On The Floor"
Album: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Release Date: Mar. 16
Some of us preferred “On The Floor,” some of us preferred “Describe,” and honestly it was nice that there was one argument we could have in 2020 that wasn’t a thinly-veiled proxy war over politics.
70. Bon Iver - "AUATC"
Release Date: Aug. 5
In 2001, the delightful Welsh band Super Furry Animals released an album called Rings Around the World, including a song called "Receptacle for the Respectable" which featured the sound of Paul McCartney chewing carrots and celery as a percussion track.
I bring that up because both Bruce Springsteen and Jenny Lewis contributed vocals to this track, but I had to break out the good headphones to get to a point where I think I can hear them. Even then I'm not sure. But honestly, if I were Justin Vernon, a weird kid from Wisconsin who suddenly found himself the toast of the entire music industry, this is exactly what I would do.
71. Bright Eyes - "Mariana Trench"
Album: Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Release Date: Jun. 22
The critical consensus on this album seems to be “underwhelming,” and the “return” of Bright Eyes may not pack quite as much of a punch when we have so many other avenues for Conor Oberst-related content (his solo work, Mystic Valley Band, Desaparecidos, Better Oblivion Community Center, etc.). Still, I’m a firm believer that every new Oberst project gives you at least something of value, and for me that was the record’s third single, “Mariana Trench.”
72. 2nd Grade - "Velodrome"
Album: Hit to Hit
Release Date: Apr. 6
Hit to Hit contains twenty-four songs and clocks in at forty-one minutes. These aren't even traditional songs as much as sketches, but they're such good sketches. ("Boys in Heat," for instance, is a perfect Big Star song in a minute and sixteen seconds.) Do I wish it were longer? Sure, but why should it be?
I wrote about “Summer of Your Dreams,” above, and why it was my personal favorite song from the album, but if you asked me what I thought was objectively the album’s best song, it’s this one. In a year when we tragically lost Adam Schlesinger, let’s cling to the power pop we still have left.
73. Machine Gun Kelly - "forget me too" (f/ Halsey)
Album: Tickets to My Downfall
Release Date: Sep. 25
One of the worst rappers of our lifetimes makes a pop-punk album and it’s somehow … really good? I don’t get it. I reviewed “bloody valentine” for The Singles Jukebox, but “forget me too” is far and away the best song on the record, mostly due to the fact that Halsey was apparently born to make songs like this. MGK is fine, but she shreds him on this track. If we all focus hard enough, we can collectively will a Halsey pop-punk album into existence for 2021.
74. Bree Runway - "DAMN DANIEL" (f/ Yung Baby Tate)
Release Date: Apr. 30
The last song added to the list which, by tradition means that in six months I will either be telling people it should have been ranked 50 spots higher or I will have forgotten it entirely.
(Side Note: This was my first  review for The Singles Jukebox.)
75. Miley Cyrus - "Edge of Midnight" (Midnight Sky Remix f/ Stevie Nix)
Release Date: Nov. 6
I want Miley’s next project to just be this: she rewrites classic songs and then gets the original artists to sing the new versions with her. It sounds delightful and seems like it would benefit everyone involved.
76. Cardi B - "WAP" (f/ Megan Thee Stallion)
Release Date: Aug. 7
A fun thing about living in Europe is that you get to process new music news by checking your phone in the morning and working backward from "everyone hates Kylie Jenner now for some reason, what do you think happened?"
(Side Note: This song took awhile to grow on me, since I’m usually drawn to a chorus first, and the chorus is easily the worst part of “WAP.” The beat is great, the verses are fun and fresh and expressive, but the chorus still feels like a chant to me, a little bit low energy. The rest of the song eventually won me over, but this is my explanation for why “WAP” is the Song of the Year on basically every other list, but not mine.)
77. Carly Rae Jepsen - "Window"
Album: Dedicated Side B
Release Date: May 21
I’ll never be able to quit CRJ. Dedicated Side B was a cut below her other recent work (I say “recent” like E•MO•TION isn’t somehow already five years old), but I still really like “Window” and what it represents. This is what I want artists to do with their b-sides. I get why this didn't make the cut for Dedicated. It doesn't fit. It's a very un-CRJ instrumental, and it's "risky" to the extent that a catchy, three-minute pop song could ever be. It was written with two musicians who (according to my very brief googling) have never worked with her before. It sounds "live" in a way her music doesn't usually sound. So yeah, release it as a b-side. And hopefully people with more influence than me will say, "yes, we want more like this!"
78. Allie X - "Susie Save Your Love" (f/ Mitski)
Album: Cape God
Release Date: Feb. 21
The impressive thing about this song is that it doesn't really sound like Allie X or Mitski, and yet it's still really good.
79. L Devine - "Boring People"
Release Date: Jan. 24
This is a streeeetch, but I’ve been thinking about this song in connection with the classic Pet Shop Boys song “Being Boring,” specifically in terms of what it feels like to be young. (Look, it’s two songs by gay artists with the word “boring” in the title, it’s not a completely baseless connection.)
“Being Boring,” released in 1990, is a battle cry from people ready to take over the world:
When you're young you find inspiration
In anyone who's ever gone
And opened up a closing door
She said, "We were never feeling bored
'Cause we were never being boring
We had too much time to find for ourselves
And we were never being boring
We dressed up and fought, then thought: "Make amends"
And we were never holding back or worried that
Time would come to an end"
“Boring People,” released thirty years later, has given up entirely:
Wake up to the same nine to five
Drinking coffee, fight off the night
'Cause we’re boring people
I know the planet has become a darker, more hostile place in those intervening decades, especially for those younger generations just starting to make their way in the world but man, that is grim, L Devine. Dress up and fight! Open up that closing door!
80. Spanish Love Songs - "Losers 2"
Album: Brave Faces Everyone
Release Date: Jan. 22
The last concert Ilana and I saw together was The Menzingers at Melkweg, February 3. (Side Note: It was great.) Spanish Love Songs opened, but we didn’t get there in time for their set. I didn’t really know much about the band at the time, and since we used to go to so many shows, we generally gave ourselves permission to only see the bands we knew and loved and to not feel an obligation to see every opening act. I say that because I would absolutely pay $500 right now to see a pre-pandemic Spanish Love Songs concert.
81. The Winter Passing - "Melt"
Album: New Ways of Living
Release Date: Jun. 25
Another great new song/album/band from the endlessly rewarding genre of Bands Martha Follows on Twitter.
82. Teenage Halloween - "Drown"
Album: Teenage Halloween
Release Date: Sep. 18
Self-described “GAY ANGRY POWER-POP.” It turns out I’ve been wasting a lot of time trying to come up with these blurbs, as most bands are apparently better at describing themselves than I will ever be.
83. The Sonder Bombs - "What Are Friends For?"
Release Date: Sep. 24
In 2012, a man named John Koenig launched a project called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, whose goal was to come up with new words for emotions that currently lack words. “Sonder” was defined as “the profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one's own, which they are constantly living despite one's personal lack of awareness of it.” He’s right, we needed a word for that.
84. Margo Price - "Letting Me Down"
Album: That's How Rumors Get Started
Release Date: Jun. 10
I’ve spent so much time purposely distancing myself from country music, falling in love with the year’s high-profile releases (your Kacey Musgraves, your Highwomen) out of a desire to experience the full range of new music while keeping an arms-length detachment from the genre as a whole. At this point, though, maybe it’s just more honest to say that I like country music. People like Margo Price just make consistently great songs, and I can appreciate that. I don’t think that means I have to put a Confederate flag bumper sticker on my lifted F-350.
85. Fenne Lily - "Hypochondriac"
Release Date: Mar. 10
Evocative of an incredibly specific time, place, and feeling, the time being mid-March, the place being stuck inside our apartment, and the feeling being a mix of confusion and fear. Probably not how she wanted her music to be received, but I’m here to say that it helped.
86. Anderson .Paak - "Lockdown"
Release Date: Jun. 19
Maybe the only song on this list that touches at all on the historic and horrible year we all just lived through. And, since it’s 2020 and it couldn’t be any other way, the remix features Jay Rock rapping about how Bill Gates is going to inject us all with microchips. I don’t know how to type a long, exasperated sigh, but please imagine one right here. Everything is exhausting.
87. beabadoobee - "Care"
Album: Fake It Flowers
Release Date: Jul. 15
Like a shinier, better-produced version of Soccer Mommy or Snail Mail, it was fun to watch critics struggle to categorize Fake It Flowers because those of us from older generations know you’re supposed to call beabadoobee a sellout, a pretty girl taking "underground" music, repackaging it for mass consumption, and making money off of the work of others. The problem is that it’s 2020 and no part of that dynamic works anymore: no one makes money off of any of this, beabadoobee isn’t necessarily more famous than either Soccer Mommy or Snail Mail (and neither of them are really "underground"), and if you’re trying to sell out, it sure doesn’t seem like indie rock is the place to do it. So, now that we’ve gone through the requisite hand-wringing, we can all admit that we wanted a shinier, better-produced version of Soccer Mommy or Snail Mail. We wanted an artist explicitly trying to make music for the climactic scenes of a late-90s teen movie. I know I did.
88. The Wonder Years - "Brakeless"
Release Date: Oct. 23
One unexpected side effect of moving to Amsterdam is that songs about bike accidents are now almost too intense to listen to.
89. Sauti Sol - "Suzanna"
Album: Midnight Train
Release Date: Feb. 7
Of all the people in the world, I am confident that I am easily in the bottom 1% of People Hurt By Covid-19. I know this. That said, one of the biggest bummers of the year was that Ilana and I were in the early stages of planning a late-summer trip to Kenya (and maybe Tanzania!) that we had to scrap when the world shut down. I spent a few days in Kenya for work last year and, while I didn’t see much, I quickly fell in love with the country and couldn’t wait to get back. Someday. This year, though, the closest I got was listening to Nairobi’s finest, Sauti Sol. It’s, um, not the same as being there. But it’s still good.
90. The Killers - "Fire In Bone"
Album: Imploding the Mirage
Release Date: Apr. 24
Passes the only test for a Killers song, which is "Could my Dad and I dance awkwardly to this at a wedding reception?" We could! The fact that The Killers put out three songs that passed this test in 2020 (apologies to the deserving “My Own Soul’s Warning”) is a minor miracle.
91. Dagny - "Come Over"
Album: Strangers / Lovers
Release Date: Feb. 8
She has to pay CRJ for those background “Hey!”s, but it’s cool because she pays her with Katie Perry’s money.
92. Georgia Maq - "Cold Summer"
Release Date: Mar. 11
At least once a year, I comment on the solo project from the leader of a band I love by questioning why it was necessary to make a solo record at all when it sounds just like the band. This … is absolutely not one of those times. Instead, it’s a fragile, vulnerable song from a singer whose band (Camp Cope) is pretty much the exact opposite of that.
93. Pale Waves - "Change"
Album: Who Am I?
Release Date: Nov. 11
Everyone’s favorite Sad Manchester Teens are back! While other bands sign with Dirty Hit and immediately sound 10% more like The 1975 (BLACKSTARKIDS, for example), Pale Waves grew up on Dirty Hit and seem to be going the other way, finding their own sound apart from Matty and co. Their own sound turns out to be a very specific early-2000s alternative sound that is driving Ilana completely insane trying to figure out what it reminds her of, but still.
94. Hayley Williams - "Over Yet"
Album: Petals for Armor II
Release Date: Apr. 21
Sometimes a chorus is so undeniable you don’t really even need the rest of the song, part one.
95. CL - "+HWA+"
Release Date: Oct. 29
Sometimes a chorus is so undeniable you don’t really even need the rest of the song, part two.
96. Georgia - "24 Hours"
Album: Seeking Thrills
Release Date: Jan. 10
I thought long and hard about swapping this one out for the electric cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” that she released two days before this list was set for publication, but “24 Hours” has been with us since January, and I feel like it deserves our respect based on service time alone.
97. Remi Wolf - "Down the Line"
Album: I'm Allergic To Dogs
Release Date: Jun. 24
The video features poorly-animated figures strutting down candy-colored streets, and that is exactly what this sounds like.
98. Burna Boy - "Wonderful"
Album: Twice As Tall
Release Date: Jun. 26
Burna Boy’s year started with “Wonderful,” an exuberant celebration of a lead single for his world-conquering album Twice as Tall. It ended with “20 10 20,” a grief-stricken protest anthem released just days after the Nigerian military fired live ammunition at protestors in Lagos. I’m sure he would prefer to stick with the former, but it’s such a tribute to his talent that he’s this good at both.
99. 070 Shake - "Guilty Conscience"
Album: Modus Vivendi
Release Date: Jan. 10
Not just the best thing about underwhelming Kanye projects anymore!
100. Weave - "Wallflowers"
Album: The Sound II
Release Date: Apr. 8
I listened to this song an embarrassing number of times before I realized it was in Japanese. This kind of music just scans as “English Speakers Only” to me, but I’m working on getting over that, with the help of The Alternative’s helpful Friendship International series, a monthly deep dive into the best of emo and alternative music throughout Asia.
Every year I am impressed by the sheer humor and erudition of your insights on the music of the year and our humble human existence. Great writing, great song selections, great thoughts. Thanks again for being our ears.ReplyDelete
PS: I'm hoping some of my selections move you off of your irrational fear of "country music," whatever that is.
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