Rankstravaganza: My 30 Favorite Songs of 2020
What can one say about 2020 other than, “Good riddance”? I can think of one thing: There was some damn good music released this year. Is it because 2020 was a particularly fruitful year, with talented artists who had nothing else to do but write and record new music? Or was it because I just had more time to explore new music? Probably a combination of both, to be honest.
Bandcamp Fridays, during which the online retailer foregoes its usual fees and gives 100% of each sale directly the artist, has been a great inspiration for me in the time of COVID. It’s an easy way to directly support local artists, and an excuse for me to peruse the new releases with an Oakland tag at least once a month. I discovered a lot of independent East Bay music as a result. (Bandcamp has announced that the initiative will continue through at least May.)
I also owe a debt to the fine folks at All Songs Considered. Several of the songs below were discovered while listening to the “New Music Friday” or “Best Music of [month]” podcasts while loading the dishwasher, which is where I spent like 20 percent of my time in 2020 (on account of everybody being home all day every day and generating significantly more dirty dishes).
I hope the pipeline of good music keeps flowing into 2021. The rest of 2020 can stay right where it is, thank you very much.
30. “Come Get Me,” Nada Surf
In contrast to the rock ‘n’ roll’s longstanding and cliched association with car culture, it’s so refreshing whenever the New York City band celebrates an alternate mode of transportation—whether it’s a bike-centric music video or this sunny slice of guitar-pop, in which Matthew Caws’ lyrics finds transcendence in the everyday details of boarding the subway.
29. “If I Can, If I May,” Mourning [A] BLKstar
Released just 10 days before the death of George Floyd, the latest release by this Cleveland avant-garde collective matched the mood of the moment due to the sad fact that the tragedy was all to easy to predict. While soulful vocals and brass riffs are the opening track’s most obvious features, more important is the ominous, hissing drone that underlies the whole album. It is deliberate and symbolic of “how we as marginalised POC folk have to create beauty above the noise of an imperial country,” founder William Washington told Wire.
28. “This is What You Did,” This is the Kit
Sometimes I like to imagine that this track is the result of Kate Stables accepting a bar bet that she couldn’t make a swinging song that seamlessly combined progressive banjo picking and reedy sax solos straight out of an ’80s erotic neo-noir.
27. “2020,” Ben Folds
In late June, Folds directly confronted the prevailing sense that this year was shaping up to be a nightmare repeat of all the worst moments in American history with a plaintive piano ballad that asks, “What the actual fuck?”
26. “Never the Same,” STRFKR
I’ve known of the Portland band for more than a decade, back when I was in charge of the entertainment calendar of a family newspaper and had to figure out how to list it under its former moniker that included vowels. Turns out it’s right in my psychedelic indie wheelhouse. Gonna have to go back and explore their catalog in the new year.
25. “Newspaper,” Fiona Apple
Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ first two tracks have rightly earned a lot of the attention, but this mid-album chant about an emotionally manipulative ex and Apple’s sympathy for his next victim contains some of the most cutting lyrical moments. As a former newspaperman, I was ultra-curious about the track’s title. Turns out she just happened to glance at a newspaper while trying to come up with a filename for the percussion track.
24. “Get Me Some,” TOKiMONSTA feat. Drew Love & Dumbfoundead
This is one effortlessly cool groove built on a jazzy piano loop and a fat synth bassline straight outta some lost Talking Book outtake. I was convinced for half the year that L.A. producer TOKiMONSTA recruited Anderson .Paak, but it’s actually Drew Love of THEY. assisting on vocals. (Wow, is there a lot of stylized capitalization and errant punctuation in that sentence.)
23. “Do You Think We’ll Last Forever?,” Caroline Rose
Making the transition from folk/country to dance-pop can be treacherous, but it helps if you infuse everything with a sense of goofy adventurousness and also make your album a self-deprecating, conceptual satire that pokes fun at the very notion of ambition. Take notes, Jewel.
22. “Don’t Slack,” Anderson .Paak and Justin Timberlake
A funny thing happened after I purchased the Trolls World Tour soundtrack for my 7-year-old daughter: I found myself listening, independently and purposefully, to the neo-doo-wop boogie that Prince D and Branch sing on the end credits.
21. “Neon Skyline,” Andy Shauf
The opening track to the Canadian songwriter’s short-story-in-album-form sets the scene and introduces the characters, and does it well, but it made the cut here because it has an imminently listenable melody that feels as familiar as an old friend who just walked through the door.
20. “Phase,” Pinegrove
The New Jersey band cracked a Billboard chart for the first time with this driving tune, and it’s a good representation of the band’s vaguely emo, vaguely alt-country formula.
19. “Circle the Drain,” Soccer Mommy
There was a certain style of feminine, melancholy folk-pop that was popular circa 1998—think “Sonny Came Home, “Torn,” “I Don’t Want to Wait”—and Sophie Allison’s latest single would have fit right in with them on your local adult alternative station and/or on stage at Lillith Fair.
18. “In / Out,” En Attendant Ana
Would you look at the video for this song? Look at these cool kids living in Paris; making cool-sounding, jangly, new wave rock ‘n’ roll like it’s 1982; filming shit on their cool retro Super 8 movie cameras. Being all young and talented and having fun. Whatever, man.
17. “Just One More,” The California Honeydrops
Oakland’s Honeydrops have been playing—from BART stations to the festival circuit—for going on 13 years, but the quintet’s energetic take on retro soul/gutbucket blues sounds much, much older (especially on the band’s latest EP, which mostly avoided studio overdubbing in favor of live, one-take recordings). My family was convinced I’d put on some obscurity from the 1950s.
16. “Domino,” Nicole Atkins
Do you need anything more than a cool riff, a quality hook, a sultry voice, some studio time at Muscle Shoals, and members of some of the greatest rhythm sections of all time to make a great, soulful pop song? No, no you do not.
15. “Deciphering Dreams,” Amanda Shires
When I saw Shires live in 2012 at the Freight & Salvage, she came across as an unassuming, down-to-earth peddler of simple country tunes. Contrast that with the chanteuse singing about “purple falling fog” over a rollicking beat and crunching guitars (courtesy of hubby Jason Isbell). The songcraft is still just as strong, but she is following her own whims and interests wherever they might take her, and it’s truly exciting to see.
14. “The Bubbles That Rise From the Bottom,” VJ Gabi and Brant Jackson
Of all the Bandcamp Friday discoveries I made, this is the one that rose to the top. Just some hazy, chill hip-hop with good production and interesting imagery made by two Oakland dudes with time to kill during lockdown.
13. “Dreamsicle,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Speaking of Jason Isbell, here he is once again doing some absolutely brilliant, emotional gut-punching. He takes what I can only imagine is his own boyhood experience with divorce, and then contrasts it with some all-American imagery, none more potent than the chorus’s “Dreamsicle on a summer night in a folded lawn chair.” And with those 10 little words, Isbell just made everybody’s entire childhood come flooding back.
12. “Gaslighter,” The Chicks
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the erstwhile Dixie Chicks were making a political statement by putting out a single (and album) with this title. The trio probably would not have been able to if the term had not re-entered the public lexicon roundabouts Jan. 20, 2017. But it takes only one listen to realize that this is much more personal, as Natalie Maines absolutely lays into her ex-husband for the first—but far from the last—time on the album. The tight-as-ever harmonies and pounding drums are just icing on the “fuck you” cake.
11. “Overlord,” Dirty Projectors
The Brooklyn art-rock collective spent 2020 putting out a series of five EPs, with different members taking lead vocal duties. This is from the first of the set, featuring guitarist Maia Friedman. Revel in the vibrant, exotic, bubbly sounds and definitely pay no mind to the lyrics about submission to authoritarianism. Everything is fine!
10. “Anthem Part Two,” Julien Baker
Who could have ever guessed that the song that would most captured the spirit of 2020 would be a cover of a Blink-182 song from 2001? When it ends with a rising cascade of vocals crying, “Everything has fallen to pieces,” well, how could it not? One of 55 tracks recorded for the Save Stereogum covers compilation to help keep the online music mag afloat, Baker’s contribution is not streaming on Youtube or anywhere else—to hear it, you gotta pony up a donation and download the whole shebang—so you’ll just have trust me. Instead, please enjoy Baker being interviewed about the track and a trailer for the compilation. (The Indiegogo campaign has closed, but apparently you can still purchase the album for a limited time by emailing email@example.com and begging them to take your money.)
9. “The Steps,” Haim
I watched the Haim sisters perform this on Jimmy Fallon (a video that is inexplicably no longer available on the internets), and I would just like to know where I apply to be the slightly husky white dude who plays simple chords in tempo on a 12-string for this song, because it is my dream job. This tune did not have to grow on me at all—I fell in love with it instantly, from the first cracks of snare drum.
8. “Kyoto,” Phoebe Bridgers
This is the second year in a row that Obama and me had the same song on our year-end lists! Guess that makes us both dark and strange heterosexual men! This is the rock-iest tune on Bridgers’ sophomore album, and like No. 9 above, it is impossible to resist. It also contains one of the year’s most devastating lyrical moments:
“… Stare at the chemtrails with my little brother
He said you called on his birthday
You were off by like ten days
But you get a few points for tryin’.”
7. “Xian Man,” Stephen Malkmus
Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream on this trippy folk-rock groove. Frankly, a lot of Malkmus’ latest album breezes by on the strength of its instrumentation, but it’s all good, man. Just enjoy that sliding dobro and that freaky-deaky psychedelic guitar tone. Mmm-hmm. Yeah. You know it, buddy.
6. “Thrift Store,” Bowerbirds
A decade ago, the North Carolina indie-folk band was one of my favorites, but they fell off the map after releasing a 2013 EP. It was so refreshing to see the band (or at least Philip Moore performing under than name) resurface this year. I think this is maybe another case of the pandemic leaving musicians with little to do other than write and record. So, I guess, to paraphrase Poison, every thorn has its rose. That sounds like a Bowerbirds lyric, and you’re welcome to use it, Phil.
5. “Aries,” Gorillaz feat. Peter Hook and Georgia
Meanwhile, Damon Albarn’s “virtual band” spent 2020 releasing “episodes” of the first “season” of Song Machine, which basically just meant putting out an album one animated music video at a time. This melancholy synth-pop track is the best of the bunch and does, indeed, sound a bit like 2-D put some vocals over a New Order outtake.
4. “Hell,” Waxahatchee
As I mentioned in my Favorite Albums of 2020 write-up, Katie Crutchfield’s latest is remarkably consistent. I mean, nobody can quite agree on what is Saint Cloud’s standout track. Obama went with “Can’t Do Much,” while Pitchfork featured both “Fire” and “Lilacs” on its Top 100 list. For me, though, “Hell” is the one that edged out the others. The chorus is pure perfection, as Crutchfield harmonizes with herself, applies just a hint of twang, and turns up the intensity. “… I wanted to write a song that’s a little bit psycho,” she told Pitchfork.
3. “Marathon,” Chuck Prophet
Did San Francisco’s Chuck Prophet mean to write a musical metaphor about how getting through this pandemic is like a dance marathon? After all, this year has felt a bit like a sadistic endurance contest, one in which it certainly helps to have a partner you can lean on. (By the way, that’s Prophet’s wife Stephanie Finch dueting with him on this track.) And the repeated line “Till we all fall down” does seem to recall “Ring Around the Rosie,” which we’ve all been told evolved as a way for children to cope with the grim reality of the bubonic plague (even if folklorist tend to say that’s bunk). Eh … probably not, seeing as how the video for this song premiered way back in February, before the first lockdowns. Still, there’s something oh-so alluring about a prescient song, and I choose to believe this is one of the most prescient song I’ve heard since “Ashes of American Flags.”
2. “Until Olympius Returns,” The Mountain Goats
In contrast to the last song, I don’t think there’s any question that John Darnielle was purposefully using metaphor and historical parallels to make a statement about current events. He jokes about “everybody writing so many songs these days about Neoplatonists and late paganism and all,” but I think he knows that we know there’s a relevant message in the quiet defiance of fourth century Alexandrians living under an authoritarian regime, waiting for a moment of comeuppance that never came. Futile righteousness was certainly a big mood for me in 2020, and I think I speak for many like-minded people when I say, “ALL HAIL THE MYSTERIOUS GAP!”
1. “Jump Rope Gazers,” The Beths
I do not know what a ” jump rope gazer” is. Perhaps someone who just watches other people jumping rope … in the middle of the night? Um … look, it doesn’t matter. This is a gorgeous song, and it marks an early, dramatic turning point in the album that shares its name, wherein you realize that the New Zealand band isn’t just going to repeat the snappy highs of its debut. This is a polished, hooky, mid-tempo, guitar-pop love song that’s just begging to travel back in time to 1988-1990 so it can be played on the radio alongside “The Flame” and “Heart of the Matter.”