Since I got into music in earnest I haven’t been one to listen to individual songs very often, let alone be able to pick the “best” ones that have come out in a given year. But I recently had a revelation. In my mind, a “song” is not necessarily the same thing as a “track” (all songs are tracks but not all tracks are songs etcetera etcetera); the latter refers to a formally designated subsection of an album of any length or form, while the former represents the airtight compositional craftsmanship that compels your finger to press the repeat button over and over, the infectious vocal melodies or lyrics that speak directly to you that you can’t stop humming, the immensely satisfying sense of completeness when the thrill ride to which you’ve been haphazardly strapped comes to a perfect conclusion like a flawless bow tied atop a wrapped gift. With such a distinction I can circumvent the trepidation that I’d initially had about making one of these—the obvious probability of more conventional genres like pop, hip-hop, and country dominating, since these are the areas of music in which I find the most joy in single tracks—because it allows for a reframing: mainstream appeal or stylistic simplicity can just be called likely characteristics of songs rather than inhibitive limiters of what a song can be.
Now that we’re through with all the pedantic defining (if you come to this site and expect anything different I dunno what to tell you) I can finally say the phrase that probably could’ve just been the entire introduction on its own: Here are the songs I fell in love with this year.
Note: the release dates are for the actual tracks; if the track wasn’t a single it’s just the album release date.
I’m one superfluous voice among many when I echo the prediction that 2020 is a year we will remember for a long time. There are, of course, many reasons for its anticipated significance, most of which densely intersect, but one that I feel may be most important of all is the nationwide civil rights protests that ignited after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Not only did the ongoing demonstrations turn out record-breaking amounts of participants, but they also engendered an influx of spectacular, inspired art by Black and non-Black creators alike in their efforts to process the unprocessable, engaging with the events both directly and abstractly (e.g. Space Afrika’s hybtwibt?
, Zeal & Ardor’s Wake of a Nation
, Sault’s UNTITLED (Black Is)
, Speaker Music’s Black Nationalistic Sonic Weaponry
). Even some older releases became more resonant in the face of the nightmare, particularly Blacker Face’s Distinctive Juju
. But with the exception of hybtwibt?
I’d yet to find anything that truly captured the visceral intensity of the more volatile gatherings until I heard “Unlawful Assembly” months later. I can’t even count how many white people I saw at these things who fundamentally did not understand what it is like to fear the police, their ignorance often revealed via belligerent taunts or hero theatrics; I encourage those people to listen to this short, overwhelming mass of meticulously arranged panic and terror to get just a glimpse
of the intimidation and oppression a Black person in America feels every single day of their life. Original review of The World Will Decide
Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande – “Rain on Me” from Chromatica (Interscope, May 22)
My experience with this song seems to be the opposite of many others’; I was apathetic toward it at first but every time I’ve heard it since then I’ve enjoyed it more. Everything at which I initially balked—the bouncy, round, house-like production style; Ariana’s performance sounding somewhat phoned-in (perhaps it literally, or somewhat literally was); Gaga’s overly Gaga-ish deadpanning of the title that leads into the instrumental choruses—I now love. I have nothing against ham-fisted-but-wholesome lyrics as a rule, yet I can’t help but consider that the pandemic made me desire such saccharine sonic sunshine more than usual; watching their VMAs performance likely moved things along too because it’s a lot of fun to watch and both artists look super cute in their masks. Now I can’t get enough of their perfect vocal trades and earwormy synth melodies in the second verse and pre-chorus, the bridge (which originally sounded lazy and phoned-in to me) gets my heart pumping in anticipation, and I have a mysterious desire to listen to the song every day. Both artists greatly disappointed this year with their solo output; I’m glad this collaboration ended up speaking to me so deeply.
GEZAN – “東京 [Tokyo]” from 狂 (十三月, Jan 12)
Do you ever love a track so much that the album it’s on loses its luster in comparison? I try to avoid it—but I’d be lying if I claimed there weren’t any records with a clear standout that I’ve latched onto a bit too much. GEZAN’s admittedly excellent LP that dropped back in January, 狂
[Klue], unfortunately falls into that ragtag club because of the sheer unparalleled awesomeness of the third-to-last track, “東京.” It could just be my weakness for euphoric major-key catharsis but to me this six-minute scorcher is the peerless pinnacle of the eclectic quartet’s unique formula of a muscular yet complex sound somewhere between radio alt rock and the best of brash collective noise outfits from their homeland of Japan fused with frontman Mahi to the People’s unmistakable, unforgettable vocal delivery and verbose lyrical sprawl. If you’re like me and all rudimentary comprehension of the Japanese language has completely disappeared (or if you never knew any of it to begin with) you should definitely take a look at the English translation provided on Bandcamp; looking at the words even when you’re not listening to the song still allows their power to resonate, the electric surge and spray of an ambitiously encyclopedic flood of unanswerable questions, pop culture references, poetic imagery, intoxicating phantasmagoria, a sense of both the deeply introspective and the all-encompassing universal. Now hear them sublimely cried over some of the most exhilarating instrumentals ever laid to tape.
ZelooperZ – “2” from Moszel Offline (self-released, Jul 31)
Bruiser Brigade’s youngest, wildest, and alphabeticalest member has had quite the year. I’m not reprising the “MVPs” feature I published the past two years, but if I were, ZelooperZ would certainly be on it. In addition to completing countless painting commissions and other artistic projects, he’s put out three albums in 2020: March’s Gremlin
, July’s Moszel Offline
, and the quite recently released Valley of Life
. There’s been a noticeable shift in contemporary hip-hop toward shorter and more informal full-length studio recordings, but Z is the only one who seems to pull it off in any sort of compelling way. Many of the tracks across his trio of fresh LPs have been reliable standbys throughout the year, most of them brief or just plain hilarious enough to induce compulsive replaying, but I think “2” is my favorite. It’s an immediate slammer, with Z’s trademark high-register babble locking in over some stuttering piano chromatics and minimal, metronomic trap taps provided by prolific beatsmith WOD along with an impossibly earwormy gang chorus (this man’s ability to sound like five different people at once will never cease to amaze me). It’s also a microcosm of why I love Z’s music so much and why it really hit for me this year specifically: clever, funny, kind of loosely assembled and not-all-there at times yet meticulously composed in its own way. And who doesn’t like to get paid?
It’s certainly a bold claim to make, but I cannot think of a single other song that has captured the stuffy magic of The Velvet Underground’s iconic “Sunday Morning” as faithfully and uniquely as Lewberg’s “At Lunch.” It’s the second cut on the Dutch ensemble’s follow-up to 2018 self-titled debut and just one example of the significant artistic maturation the new record marks. Barebones, often slightly (and pleasingly) amateurish performances render the band’s reticent art rock into a thing of simple but shining beauty. Guitarist Michiel Klein’s sprightly arpeggio lullaby hits the spot dead center with its pensive grace and old-music-box dreaminess atop an ambling bed of yearning bass slides and a tentative, delicate drum beat. I’ve said many times that not only Dutch accents in general, but specifically Arie van Vliet’s half-speech musings and tiptoeing contemplation are absolutely perfect for this sort of music, and nothing supports that more than “At Lunch.”
There are a select few tracks which cannot be seamlessly integrated into my everyday life in the same way as most of the other music I enjoy because of the significant hazards my hearing them creates. If I’m driving to run a quick errand, I usually avoid Gaza’s “Gristle”
(and the whole album, really) in favor of general public safety and the physical health of my steering wheel. I was once asked if I needed to be taken to the hospital after someone walking by witnessed me listening to Curl Up and Die’s “Dr. Doom, a Man of Science, Doesn’t Believe in Jesus, Why the Fuck Do You”
—still not sure if the person was joking or not. And of course we all have our moments with “Concubine.” It’s not often that new stuff gets added to this list (MSDS-certified of course), but this year has seen plenty of ripping new hardcore that gets pretty damn close; so far, though, Crisis Actor’s “Phantom Limb Twitch” is the only cut that rivals my personal pillars of heaviness. A clear standout on an already superb debut, the three-minute scorcher blasts dissonant chords and overblown drumming that sound like they’re blaring out of a speaker whose structural integrity has been critically compromised. After a nonstop assault of lumbering double bass rolls, exhilarating half-time breaks, and spectacular gang-screams it culminates in one of the most ridiculously punishing breakdowns I have ever heard. I won’t spoil too much—just get ready to get shattered. Literally.
When they sat down to write and record their new record (although I wouldn’t put it past these two lunatics to have access to some sort of unholy supernatural music generation process), Richmond duo BLACKHANDPATH must have listened to “Theoxx,” the opener on their last full-length Egregore
, and said something like “well we definitely need to blow that out of the water, because that’s exactly what they did with “Internet Juche.” The concise slab of bone-crushing industrial aggression and flows by MC Young Kozy that make you want to simultaneously run far away from him and give him a big hug. But the instrumental choruses (pre-choruses?), with their dismantled mellotron-like choir samples and syncopated bass growls, are perhaps the song’s most energetic and invigorating sections, a testament to the strength of Bileblaster’s uncompromising production. Also, along with City Morgue’s “Neck Brace” and some other examples that aren’t coming to mind right now, certain parts of “Internet Juche” are yet another example of a band doing Death Grips better than Death Grips. Original review for Tone Glow
Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am” (Interscope, Nov 12)
July’s “My Future” saw young Eilish spreading her wings and taking off from the claustrophobic darkness and tender, understated beauty of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
into something new—and I found myself not liking it much. You don’t have to look far these days to see or hear someone complaining about Eilish or her music and a lot of it is directed at the drowsy, low-energy shtick of it all, a shtick that I didn’t realize how much I adored until well after the landmark debut album came out, and the recently released single “Therefore I Am” only reinforced my inclination. I mentioned above that some songs are hazardous for me
to listen to, but this one is a different beast entirely because I’m not sure that it’s safe for anyone
, unless you’re cool with an entire two minutes of music being permanently ingrained in your head. Yes, this is not only one of the artist’s best songs but also her catchiest, with minimal but comfortably lukewarm production, a plodding bassline, and an impeccable nursery rhyme hook that will play over and over inside your skull until the end of time. I think Eilish also strikes a good balance here in inserting herself into the music without significantly distracting from or obstructing what’s there; I found that some of the interludes on When We All Fall Asleep
did this, especially the Office
samples, but by making the song her own and adding touches of personality like the chuckling ramble that leads into the last chorus she works toward a much more effective combination. A better single than “Therefore I Am” couldn’t have been picked to get me more excited for the upcoming record.