My Top Ten Tracks of 2020
Way back in the summer, I wrote a piece about the best films I watched during the first national lockdown. A lot has changed since then—I went full-time as a freelance copywriter, I got my first article published by Vice, and I completed Sober October for Macmillan. Apparently, other stuff happened in the world too, but I wasn’t paying attention. Now that we’re back in lockdown, or at least Tier 2/3/1 (select as appropriate), it seems the perfect time to finally follow up those first blog posts. What better topic than music; my constant writing companion and one of the most essential salves for lockdown angst?
Unlike in 2019, where I loved albums like Igor, Nothing Great About Britain, and Psychodrama, I wasn’t grabbed by much hip-hop this year. I got even more heavily into post-punk, although most of what I listened to was released before this year, and The Murder Capital and Fontaines D.C.’s 2019 debut albums are still on regular rotation in this house. I listened to a lot of electronic music too—repetitive beats and lack of vocals are great for writing to, and I also released my own debut EP (which you can find on Bandcamp and most streaming services!) inspired by techno, house, and ambient music.
So, here we go with as good a topic as any—my 100% objectively correct, scientifically-proven list of the Top Ten Songs of the Year 2020.
The Archer, the successor to Alexandra Savior’s impressive debut Belladonna of Sadness, is full of tracks that take her sultry sad-girl vocals and retro, ‘60s sound and add B-movie sci-fi synths in a combination as odd as it is effective.
“Can’t Help Myself” is one of the most lyrically and structurally straightforward tracks on the album, but its cool, sun-soaked guitar, twinkling piano lines, and honey-sweet vocals come together to make a perfect piece of pop that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Belfast electronic duo Bicep’s 2017 debut album was the ideal soundtrack to my state-mandated one-hour-maximum (although let’s be honest, I was usually gasping for air after ten minutes) daily jogs back in Lockdown 1. Not only this, but one of its tracks in particular seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people in lockdown, which I ended up writing an article about.
About a week before I got to do a Zoom interview with the duo, they dropped their new single “Apricots”, which blends undulating, layered synths with jittery, minimal beats, and grooves just as hard as anything off their debut album.
Wakefield indie-punk trio The Cribs have been one of the most reliable bands of the last couple of decades, delivering infectious lo-fi (now “mid-fi”, according to their Twitter bio) bangers with impressive regularity and consistently high quality, regardless of passing indie trends. Their shows, which I have been lucky enough to see a few of, are some of the most fun you’ll have with live music.
“Running Into You”, from their recent eighth album Night Network, is no exception. Kicking straight off with a quick tumble of drums and burst of fuzz guitar, the track wastes no time reminding us why we missed them during the longest absence the band has ever taken. The Jarman brothers’ knack for great pop hooks and propensity to half-bury them under screechy guitar lines is epitomised by this track. What did you expect? It slaps.
Another artist to whom the “lo-fi” label may no longer apply is alt-R&B star Joji. By now, George Miller’s transformation from anarchic meme-maker Filthy Frank (and musical alter ego Pink Guy) to Serious Artist sad-boy is old news. The introspective, trap-inflected minimalism of his 2017 EP In Tongues and 2018 debut BALLADS 1 featured strong songwriting and production, although some ideas seemed half-formed.
2020’s long-awaited Nectar took the production to a new and impressive level, and tracks like “Daylight” and “Sanctuary” are fully-formed, bona fide electropop bangers. However, the strongest track on this collection is one that harks back the most to his old sound. “Like You Do” is a heartbreak ballad built on a woozy, submerged piano sound and melodic vocals that are resigned in the verses and soar and plead in the choruses. Although hardly verbose, Joji’s lyrics are at his most complete and cutting here: “if you ever go, all the songs that we like will sound like bittersweet lullabies”. Damn.
Victor Jara was a Chilean poet, singer-songwriter, and political activist who was tortured and killed in 1973 by soldiers loyal to the US-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was staging a coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government and murdering his supporters.
The sudden arrival of Fleet Foxes’ fourth album Shore was one of the few pleasant surprises of 2020. Less experimental than its abstract predecessor Crack-Up, the album offered a refined, expansive collection of the kind of melodic, choral folk-rock that the band does best. Lead single “Sunblind” exemplifies the introspective yet celebratory swell of the album, yet it is “Jara”, named after the aforementioned Chilean revolutionary, that makes the album’s most gorgeous moment. The layered maximalism and diverse instrumentation of the arrangement evokes a lost Pet Sounds cut, which is no bad thing.
Maybe it’s the bleakness and anxiety of “these unprecedented times”, but my urge to blast my ears into submission with serrated, feedback-drenched guitars as some form of catharsis was on overdrive (no pun intended) this year. Step in Bristol post-punks IDLES, whose outstanding 2018 album Joy as an Act of Resistance soundtracked the second half of my 2019 (I was late to the party, okay?) and most of my 2020 with their loveable combination of raw anger and aggressively uplifting lyrical mantras.
Although not quite reaching the heights of its predecessor, the band’s rousing third album Ultra Mono provided some much-needed relief from… well, everything about this year. Although some of the tracks and lyrics seemed a tad by-numbers and slightly cartoonish, the tight production and unrestrained performances make them hard not to love. Album highlight “Reigns” is as strong as anything the band has released, and straight from the start its machine-gun bass and choppy snare grab you by the throat. As for the chorus, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a massive sound in punk rock—it’s like a wave of energy crashing down.
Dublin post-punk quintet Fontaines D.C.'s 2019 debut Dogrel was my favourite release of that year, and 2020’s follow-up A Hero’s Death has been on similarly heavy rotation since it came out in the summer. Although the album has its fair share of fast-paced crowd-pleasers (the Prodigy-esque “Televised Mind” and gloriously chaotic “A Lucid Dream” being the most instant examples), its tone is generally moodier and a little more restrained than its predecessor.
The slowing of the pace seems to be accompanied by an increase in attention to production and arrangement, of which the closing track “No” is a fine example. What starts out as a sparse, simple ballad centred around two gorgeously-harmonising guitars shifts gradually into a thick, swelling texture that underpins the despondent lullaby of Grian Chatten’s vocals. With some of the band’s most straightforward yet touching lyrics (“please don’t lock yourself away, just appreciate the grey”), the song is a sobering reflection on the slow process of Moving On.
Back in February, influential DJ and producer Andrew Weatherall, who had worked extensively with acts like Primal Scream, sadly passed away. Among the many figures paying tribute was esteemed electronic artist Daniel Avery, who wrote a new track in Weatherall’s honour after hearing the news of his passing.
The result, “Lone Swordsman”, wasn’t ready in time for his excellent June-released album Love + Light, but it appeared as the B-side of the “Dusting For Smoke” single in September. Like all the best electronica, “Lone Swordsman” is the perfect blend of physicality and emotion. Its warm, Eno-esque harmonies soothe the soul like a warm bath, a pretty lead motif feels as human as a synth line can, and the skittering beats are a fine eulogy to a legend of acid house.
Until the April release of Fiona Apple’s fifth album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, my experience of the New York singer-songwriter’s work was mostly limited to her 1998 version of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe”—a cover that takes a great song and makes it better (sorry, I couldn’t resist). I had heard great things about her 2012 release The Idler Wheel… but hadn’t explored it much, so I went into Fetch the Bolt Cutters largely blind to her repertoire yet deciding to see what all the overwhelming praise was about.
After a couple of listens it was pretty clear that this album was something special. The entire collection boasts stellar songwriting, with melodies that are as irresistible as they are unexpected. There is almost always some form of mid-period-Tom-Waits-esque percussion clattering away in the background that is fantastically odd yet somehow perfectly fitting. Apple’s vocal performances are exactly as impassioned as they should be for such raw, confessional lyrical content.
The track “Ladies” is one of the slower, jazz-inflected cuts that puts the vocals centre-stage, and it’s waltzing double-bass and softly cooing backing vocals are a stunning combination. To be honest, several of the tracks from this album could have made this list, but “Ladies” is as good a choice as any other, so I’m writing it down before “Heavy Balloon” comes on and I think “no wait, it’s definitely this one!”
If there is any song that sums up the apocalyptic energy of 2020, it’s the closing track of LA singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers’ excellent second album Punisher. The ghostly keyboard chords and plaintive guitar strums of the intro are reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”, which Bridgers also covered with Arlo Parks back in September. The first half of “I Know the End” is fairly typical of the rest of the album (which is no bad thing at all); a lilting lament with lyrics detailing loss and the passage of time; “Like a wave that crashed and melted on the shore / Not even the burnouts are out here anymore”.
An aching violin refrain marks a new section; tentative confidence, a metronomic drumbeat, “we’re not alone”. Then a triumphant horn section. “I’m not afraid to disappear / The billboard said the end is near.” For the first time in the album, and Bridgers’ solo career, all hell breaks loose, and the earth opens up in a squall of feedback and squealing horns before we hear her literally gasping for air in the final seconds of the track.
It’s powerful stuff, especially in “these unprecedented times”. The seamless shifting between calm and storm, listlessness and restlessness, acceptance and existential terror sum up the year 2020 like nothing else. If the final refrain is true and “the end is here”, this is a damn fine swansong.