About a decade ago, suffering from the boredom of Pitchfork’s growing lack of credibility, I decided to stop complaining and to prepare my own top songs of the year. This way I could feel what it was like to be abused for my musical taste as I had previously criticized others. As predicted, the jeers came in heavy but the critiques were outweighed by the positive comments and more importantly the feedback about music I had missed during the year, which is always something I’m looking for.
After 3 years of absence while I tried to help raise my daughter, I decided to write the next chapter of my annual list. The Spotify playlist link and below commentary represents over 116 full albums and hundreds of other single songs. In 2020, it was hard to break that listening regiment down to 40 songs. In some years, it’s not hard, which is the sign of 2020 being a good music year.
A couple of ground rules:
I know it’s February, and I’m delivering a “Best of 2020” list so who cares, but I always felt that sending this on New Year’s Day isn’t the point. Rather, my objective was to spend time thinking about the year of music in the context of the year overall and then to take a view of what will be memorable years from now.
In a streaming world, it is hard to time stamp songs because they are often released first as singles and then as albums. Therefore, there can be some debate on whether some of these songs are 2019 or 2020 releases. I do try to stay close; therefore, you won’t find a 2012 album that I personally discovered in 2020, but you may find a song released in October 2019 that I only heard for the first time in 2020.
I have no musical expertise other than being an avid listener for many years. So, I welcome the spirited debate about anything I’m wrong about or anything I missed. Just keep my mom out of it because she’s a nice lady.
So, without further ado, here is a long list to be enjoyed in order
Another Sky – How Long? In the age of singles and Spotify, it is increasingly rare that we gain the experience of listening to a new artist in pure form – opening an album, pressing play, listening to the first song and knowing immediately that you are embarking on something special. I read an article about Another Sky which highlighted Catrin Vincent’s lead vocals and decided to give it a listen late one lockdown night. It became my musical highlight of the year. First, because Another Sky delivered a phenomenal album, but, more importantly, because it delivered the type of surprise adventure all music lovers want – to find something unexpected. Over time, will this song prove to be my favourite of 2020? Not sure, but I felt it important to give praise to a special music moment in a challenging year.
Kairon; IRSE! – An Bat None Sometimes in life, you need a headphones on, volume 10, “Rip Your Face Off” song to get you through the day. For those new to “RYFO” songs, it is important to note that these can derive from a variety of genres – my preference tends to be from the My Bloody Valentine school, focused on over-volumed, high distortion guitars. K-IRSE’s mix of MBV and Scandi death metal culminates at 5:15 when a growing build crescendos into full face explosion. Just what the doctor ordered.
BC Camplight – I Only Drink When I’m Drunk I’ve been a fan of BC Camplight for the last couple albums, but it was typically one or two great songs and a lot of experiments. With this year’s album, BC finally pulled it all together for me, delivering painfully realistic yet ironic lyrics with great music sensibility. Yes, it is true I’ve been a sucker for distorted vocoder harmonies since the old Air albums, but the pinnacle for me starts at 2:28, delivering the best musical minute of the entire year.
Katy J Pearson – Tonight When I first heard KJP, I became nostalgic of my American roots. I loved the crossover between pop and country that only a few artists can authentically create (sorry, Taylor Swift – not you). I thought – wow, amazing to have a new American woman to listen to over the next decade….wait, KJP is from Bristol, UK? WTF KJP, where did you learn this? Why is no one in the UK talking about KJP and this album? A future star is rising in your backyard, although, to be fair, it sounds like her backyard is 4,000 miles away in Nashville.
Run the Jewels – Ooh La La Winner of my Best Beat of the Year (thank you DJ Premier) via a classic sample from Gangstarr / Nice and Smooth but elevated with a modern-day, Bauuer-style harshness. As is their norm, RTJ delivered a powerful album from beginning to end that previewed the 2020 BLM movement before it happened. Read the album lyrics and then look at the launch date. It’s as if RTJ knew what was coming, but perhaps that’s because what was coming was inevitable.
Post Animal – Safe or Not (Extended Remix) I’ve tried to push this song out of my top 10, as I have a sinking feeling that it will be Post Animal’s one-hit wonder. The song keeps calling me though. The first half sounds like a Santana / Crowded House / Jam Band mash up – which surprisingly works. Then, at 2:55, the song morphs into the single that Tame Impala should have released in 2020. As I look back, I’ve been comfortable with one-hit wonders, particularly during the 70s and 80s, from where this song finds inspiration. So, Post Animal stays – just hope they can rekindle this song’s magic in future albums.
Two People – Dream Steppin’ Yes, the 80s continue to reinsert themselves into modern music. This song could have either fallen out of Michael J Fox’s Delorean or been the B-Side to Kaminsky – Nightcall. Whatever the origin, I defy anyone to listen and not start shaking some body part when the beat drops. I want this song as my personal theme song when I walk into any venue – the office, Whole Foods, wherever.
Jay Electronica – Ghost of Soulja Slim In July 2007, a couple tracks were released by a NYC artist who was immediately inaugurated rap’s new champion – Jay Electronica. We waited patiently for the album, and waited, and waited… Come 2020, Jay Electronica finally released his first full length album. What happened? I don’t think we’ll ever know, although Vulture delivered an interesting take. I’m not a musician so I don’t know what it takes to deliver an album. All I know is I wish I could have heard more Jay Electronica over the last 14 years. Hopefully, there is more to come.
The Murder Capital – Don’t Cling To Life Returning to the RYFO genre – this time from the Joy Division / Fugazi school. The Murder Capital is the band I want to see most when lockdown ends to release a year of constrained energy. Not sure I will survive the mosh pit certain to ensue given my old age, but it will be fun trying.
Other Lives – Hey Hey I In the spirit of Arcade Fire, Other Lives offered one of the more musically talented, repeat-listening albums of the year. This song was the true Phil Spector, Wall of Sound, moment that will live well beyond 2020. I’m just surprised that this album is not receiving more accolades.
Pixx – Dirt Interlude pt. 1 In recent years, more and more albums imbed “interludes” within the playlist. At first, it was annoying because I don’t know if these interludes serve a specific purpose or are just unfinished songs seeking feedback. However, in spirt of the trend, I wanted my own playlist interlude. So, I added this song / interlude because as Pixx says, “it washes off the dirt”
Sports Team – Here’s The Thing After a pretty intense first 10 songs, I felt it was important to give the kids something to dance to. The lead singer of Sports Team, Alex Rice, is the Mick Jagger / Pelle Almqvist of the now. I look forward to a future festival with Sports Team and a healthy dose of socially undistanced craziness.
Another Sky – Brave Face Second and last song on this playlist from Another Sky – truth be told, there could have been a lot more but that’s not much fun. This song is where the androgyny of Catrin Vincent’s vocals shine best, enhanced by or despite the Florence and the Machine style musical composition (depending on what you think of Florence).
Lauren Auder – June 14th When I make these playlists, people ask me what makes a song great – what is the common theme? A lot of components, but I have always been drawn to raw, emotional songs powerfully delivered both vocally and musically. On this song, Lauren is certainly letting a lot out in a manner that screams authenticity. It’s hard not to have a song like this on a playlist.
Douglas Dare – Silly Games I’m still relatively new to the UK; therefore, I’m able to look at British artists with a fresh set of eyes. With Douglas Dare, I see someone who has been overlooked in terms of singer / songwriter talent. This may be a sacrilegious statement, but has Thom Yorke delivered a better song than this over the last several albums? Nothing against Thom Yorke, who is great. Just trying to find a comparison point for those who have missed out on Douglas Dare.
Deep Sea Diver – Eyes Are Red I’ve been singing the praises of Deep Sea Diver since their first album, and I am consistently surprised by their lack of critical acclaim. Lead vocalist, Jessica Dobson, channels the best of Pat Benatar but with more consistence musically. On second thought, please continue not listening to them, as I would love to see them in a small venue when such things are allowed.
Kairon; IRSE! – Retrograde Remember the Tame Impala album that was supposed to come out in 2020. K-IRSE stole it! Only, they mixed in a bit of My Bloody Valentine and a dash of Sigur Ros to give it more of a Scandinavian vibe. Thank you K-IRSE for doing Kevin’s homework.
Wilsen – Yntoo Tamsin Wilson has the type of voice that provides internal peace, which makes Wilsen’s album highly listenable. This song takes the vibe up a level by delivering one of the year’s best musical minutes, starting at 3:15. That said, I’ve been a sucker for musical rounds since Row, Row, Row Your Boat.
IDLES – A Hymn When the Pixies, I mean IDLES, delivered this song, I was immediately drawn to the escalation of emotion across all elements – vocals, strong bass line, haunting lead guitar, building drums. The only reason it isn’t higher on the list is I wanted the eventual beat drop at 2:55 to be more explosive. I suspect in a live setting, the song will live up to my dream.
Jadu Heart – Wanderlife Back in the days of roller-skating rinks, there was a phenomenon knows as “Couples Skate” when a special slow song would come on the speakers and you were forced off the skating floor if you didn’t have a skating partner to hold hands with. This song is my “Couples Skate” song of 2020 – may all of you teenagers and want to be teenagers put it to good use with your significant (and not so significant) others.
BC Camplight – Back to Work Listening to these lyrics showcases the accessible but powerful message around mental health across the entire album: “I told my Mom I wanted to kill myself. She said Brian, grow up. You’re 40 years old, ain’t it time to stop that shit. But I can’t save the world. And by the way, Mom. I’m 41 and I’ve just begun.” Pretty deep stuff for a song that starts by quoting John McClane in Die Hard 2.
Art Feynman – The Physical Life of Marilyn Entering the artsy section of the playlist, if you can suffer through the next couple, you should make it to the end, similar to a marathon. I’ve never been a David Bowie super-fan, but the clear musical reference points here made me revisit the back catalog of the UK legend. When a modern song drives you to do something smart like that, it has to make a list like this. Right?
Tina – Dip I battled this song throughout the year. I’d listen to it, hate it, delete it, Spotify would recommend it again, rinse, repeat. By the end of 2020, the chorus and melody was probably what I sang most in my head during the year “And the buses are all full. At night time with people. I imagine they’re all alone. But it’s just a projection.” Genius.
Rats on Rafts – Tokyo Music Experience Unlike any song I heard this year and probably the most original piece of music I’ve heard since the Pinc Louds in 2018. Once again, born from the 80s but this time not in an effort to mimic. Rather, this song borrows from the 80s and then uses those tools to push music to a new place. Frankly, I’m a coward for putting this song this low, but I view it as a stepstone for where music could be going, rather than a finished product.
Temples – The Howl This song is addictive, and I couldn’t think of another popular song built off a marching beat. Therefore, I wanted to give praise for a producer taking a musical risk that works. Frankly, a lot about Temples seems formulaic, but count me in for tickets to a stadium to hear this song belted out by 50,000 drunken fans.
LA Priest – What Moves In the words of the immortal Salt-N-Pepa, “This song ain’t for everybody. Only the sexy people. So, all you fly mothers. Get out there and dance. Dance I said!” As we leave the artsy section of the playlist, I repeat that the 80s are back, this time with some reincarnation of George Michael vocals and Prince guitar played on a warped record player. Why is this song so addicting?
Run the Jewels – JU$T Bringing together RTJ and Pharrell was enough for this song to make the list. Adding Zack de la Rocha entered the head explosion zone. When I was a kid, I would have done anything to be like Zack de la Rocha. He is now 51 years old, and I still feel the same way. Gives me hope that I can be cool over 50 someday.
Christine and the Queens – I Disappear in Your Arms I will admit that I listen to some strange albums, but I do like pop music. I grew up on pop music. I just want pop music to have interesting elements. Christine is about as poppy as pop gets, and this song is so well produced that it beat out my long-time pop favourite, La Roux, to make the 2020 list.
Friendly Fires – Love Like Waves I want this song playing in the baggage claim at every beach destination airport from now for the rest of my life. It fits squarely in the currently unnamed counter RYFO genre listed above. I will come up with a name by next year’s playlist, as I’m hopeful that 2021 will deliver more moments deserved of such musical happiness.
Vagabon – Water My Down For those of you music enthusiasts with significant others who are not similarly musically enthused, you understand the excitement and pain when you think you’ve found a song that your partner will actually like, only to be denied. I tried a lot of songs on for size this past year, and Vagabon delivered the top hit. In a tough year for our family, we performed a lot of booty shakes in our kitchen to this jam. I would have liked it anyway, but I will always love it thanks to what we got past with its help.
Future Islands – For Sure Future Islands is in a category all to their own. Samuel Herring sounds like no other vocalist and sings with such emotion that you almost wonder if he’s going to burst into tears at times (example: see their famous David Letterman appearance). This song takes a bit to build, but the chorus is special.
The Weeknd – Blinding Lights Did I mention the 80s are back? And now, The Weeknd, the best pop male vocalist since Michael Jackson, is getting into the act? Count me in. Was it the right move to perform at The Super Bowl – no. But seeing The Weeknd’s career develop for over 15 years, it is clear that he deserves to fully break into the mainstream.
Douglas Dare – The Playground Probably the song I fought with most during this year. It starts slow with a broadway musical sensibility, which is not my thing, but I kept coming back to it. The payoff is at 3:00 where the song takes on an Everything In Its Right Place vibe, making another Thom Yorke / Douglas Dare comparison. Debate?
Glass Animals – Dreamland As the list winds down to some slower jams, I wanted to put in one of the more interesting musical songs of the year. Glass Animals has always had great production. On this song, you actually feel like you are in a Dreamland, at least the types of dreams I want to have.
Aiden Knight – Rolodex New to me but not a new artist, Aiden Knight delivered a fantastic album of song writing, and this song was top of the lot. There are a lot of break up songs in the world, but not many with this song’s emotional authenticity, “Sitting with the engine running. You’ll never find another half to make you whole. Am I terrified of being alone? Did you ever love me? Will you ever forgive me?”
Fleet Foxes – Maestranza After seeing the Fleet Foxes several years ago, they will always be one of my favourite bands. The last couple albums haven’t been as good as the originals, but this song reached the heights of Mykonos and other perennial favourites. It was a nice surprise when my expectation was a continued decline.
Toth – Down for the Count In a similar spirit as Fleet Foxes musically, Toth also delivered a strong album. What is memorable is the peaceful musical composition juxtaposed against the singing of “This is annihilation, this is annihilation”. Feels relevant versus the modern backdrop of our times.
Katy J Pearson – Hey You Is this Stevie Nicks? No – it’s the American imposter, KJP, again. Please UK citizens, embrace this artist or let her leave the nest and move to the US. This is her first album. I think you are about to embark on something special over the next couple.
Deep Sea Diver – Shattering The Hourglass Did I mention that Deep Sea Diver is mine – all mine. Don’t listen to this song or album, you won’t like it. And the last 2 albums, similarly bad. Stay away.
Night Tapes – Dream In 2021, I want a beach, a hammock, this song and a couple drinks. The ultimate chill track that transitions at 4:45 into an even better, more interesting chill track. I’m expecting more from Night Tapes after a strong initial EP that probably deserved one or 2 more songs for this list.
Dogleg – Ender Despite my love of music, I’ve never had much talent musically. Therefore, I’ve never had the chance to play a walk off, guitar breaking, RYFO finale, but I wanted my playlist to have one. What’s great about this song is what’s great about music and life during tough times. In what seems to be complete disruption and chaos, there is often an underlying intelligence and quality that just needs to be unpacked to understand. If you listen to the end, you will see what I mean.
Thanks for listening. Let the debate begin, and I look forward to contributing in the future, if the Snobs will have me.
Old Man Hattan