Year End Music Countdowns #19: 2020

Ok here it is

The Top 25 Songs of 2020

25. One and Done– Bright Eyes —

Speaking to a media outlet during the promotional cycle of Bright Eyes’ reunion album, Conor Oberst said he wanted the new material to sound like classic Bright Eyes with a modern touch, and that’s exactly what it is. All the band’s old touchstones are there, only now they sound like traditional 70s prog-rock. Of all the band’s previous albums, this song and its companion tracks would fit best on 2006’s B-Sides and outtakes album Noise Floor, lending credibility to the theory that this is a direction Oberst always wanted to take but never found a proper album for. 

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24. Love is All We Share – Cut Copy —

I’m not gonna jump the gun and say that chillwave has returned and the world will enter an age of mellow vibes, but there were quite a few chillwave releases in 2020 and several of them made this list….

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23.  Shelter Cove – Brothertiger —

…like Brothertiger’s “Shelter Cove”, which seems to have been cryogenically frozen in 2010 to be defrosted a decade later.

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22. Ceremony – Deftones —

Deftones fans were spoiled for the first half of the last decade. They got the commercially accessible Diamond Eyes, several Chino Moreno side projects, and the stellar Koi No Yokan all in quick succession. Then came 2016’s Gore and it was kind of really bad. Then Deftones went away until this year when they not only released the return-to-form Ohms, but a remix album of the legendary White Pony.

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21. Sugar- Sufjan Stevens —

Sufjan Stevens has two modes: hushed and delicate acoustic folk, and weirdo glitch orchestral. Seeing as his last album was the former, we’re being treated to a phantasmagorical wonderworld this time around. “Sugar” is a centrepiece on an album full of centrepieces. It’s not the immediate pop hit (the unexpected “Video Games”), it’s not the deep cut fan favourite (“Run Away With Me”), it’s not even the record’s sprawling magnum opus (the 12 minute “America”). It’s a hybrid of the three, an incredibly well written and produced song that has the potential to become Stevens’ calling card.

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20. Lost in Yesterday – Tame Impala —

Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker has a strange quirk: he’s great at choruses, not great at verses. It’s a weird problem; most bands struggle with the inverse. But “The Less I Know the Better” and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” are fantastic choruses surrounded by mediocre filler. That’s not the case with “Lost in Yesterday”, a song with all good parts and a great bassline to boot.

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19. Hide – Washed Out —

Finally after 9 years Washed Out’s Ernest Greene returns to the sound that made the band huge, and the only sound that Washed Out should stick with.

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18. Featherweight – Fleet Foxes —

Fleet Foxes have sort of become a folk punchline, a more artisanal stand-in for the oft derided Mumford and Sons or Lumineers. Sticking them on a best-of countdown cements said list as a millennial hipster playlist. But whatever, these harmonies are worth any jabs.

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17. Love Again – Dua Lipa —

2020’s pop queen by default, Dua Lipa didn’t quite write the huge breakthrough song her PR people claim she has with “Don’t Start Now”. She’s essentially at the same point Ariana Grande was in 2014, a B-list diva on the cusp of superstardom. She’d probably be closer if she’d picked “Love Again” as the big single, but what do I know?

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16. One of Them Years- Matthew Good —

As Matt Good settles into legacy artist status it seems he’s picked the folk route over an alternative rock one and it suits him well. His dour screeds sound right at home surrounded by sparse finger picked acoustic guitar and barroom piano. It doesn’t hurt that this song essentially defines 2020.

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15. Trust – Youngblood Hawke —

These guys are always gonna be an opening band.  But at least they’ll be the ones right before the headliner, and that headliner will likely be playing an arena.

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14. Nothing For Free – Pendulum —

10 years of waiting…was it worth it? Yes. No left-field experiments or modern touches here- Pendulum sound exactly like they did when they went on hiatus, replete with hooks and urgent D&B beats.

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13. American Cars – Annie—

When it comes to glacial Scandinavian pop…it’s Annie all the way.

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12. Summertime – Orville Peck —

You can tell Orville Peck wants to be the country Lana Del Rey so bad. The devotion to a specific sound and imagery, the recurring melodic motifs within his songs, the sweeping melodrama- the guy has a very obvious desire to be an arena level cult icon. “Summertime” is his “Blue Jeans”, which means it’s not long before we’ll get his analogue for “Video Games” and that is pretty exciting.

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11. Unlovable – Delacey —

It’s an Amy Shark song, just not Amy Shark.

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10. Cops – Other Lives —

Finally the band returns to the ominous folk of their 2012 days.

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9. Polyaneurism – of Montreal —

Kevin Barnes built his reputation on being a notoriously adventurous romantic, attracted to everyone on every part of the Kinsey scale. Now he’s suddenly over his head, poking fun at himself for not being able to adhere to a polygamous relationship and becoming the “old guy”. Semi-ironically dropping modern slang, he delivers his self-aware complaints about modern love with aplomb in this electro-pop gem.

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8. Blue Comanche – Westerman —

Clean. There’s something very clean about this song, especially during the first chorus. It’s like one of Bon Iver’s latter-day electro-folk jams, only streamlined to iron out all the glitches.

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7. First Feeling – Spice —

Built around a short, cyclical riff, “First Feeling” cuts right to the point and digs deeper and deeper for about two minutes before literally running out of steam and stopping after an onslaught of pure 90s alternative.

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6. Looking For You – Nada Surf — 

So, here’s something supremely weird. Every few years Nada Surf put out an album, I find one or two pleasant songs on it, listen to them for a month or so, then fondly smile years later when those songs come up when I’ve shuffled my playlist. It hasn’t been a complicated relationship- until now. Suddenly these 90s one-hit-wonders turned reliable indie stalwarts dropped an album that had not only those reliably pleasant songs but also some unexpectedly amazing singles. I didn’t know that three decades into a career was the perfect time to drop a rock opera, but “Looking For You” proved that point and now I’ve actually got high expectations for the next Nada Surf album.

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5. Dying Breed – The Killers —

You can usually tell within five seconds whether a song wants to be taken seriously or not. That doesn’t mean the song will be good, but it will give you an idea as to what music purists will think of it. “Dying Breed” was well-received by music purists, and one can see why. There’s a certain panache to the opening drums, a combination of production and patience that if nothing else, shows you that Brandon Flowers wants you to think of him as an artist and not just as a popstar.

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4. For Sure – Future Islands — 

As much as I love Future Islands, I won’t deny that this is third iteration of this song. They hit the big time with “Seasons”, then polished the formula and three years later dropped “Ran”. Three years after that they bring us “For Sure”, which yes, is the exact same song it was under its first two titles. This time it’s equipped with towering synths and galloping drums, and it works just as well as its predecessors. 2023’s lead Future Islands single is gonna be amazing.

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3. Plasticine Dreams – Boston Manor —

Perhaps it’s because I’m shuffling off into an older demographic, but I found myself browsing iTunes’ “Rock” section a lot more this year. Prior to this year it was a desolate graveyard filled with irrelevant hard rockers from the 2000s, a genre of bands I like to call “magician rock”, and about a million AC/DC tracks. Now – at least from my perspective- there were some interesting songs thrown in the mix. Like this one, which somehow manages to cram the style of every single rock hit from 1998 into one track. At some points you can hear the sardonic whine of Harvey Danger, at others the sitaresque guitar from Age of Electric’s “Remote Control”. There’s also some Econoline Crush, some Filter, some Mad Season, and even some Savage Garden. It’s basically 1998: The Song.

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2. Graceland Too – Phoebe Bridgers — 

Is Phoebe Bridgers  an industry plant? The convenient pairings of herself with Conor Oberst, Lord Huron and Matt Berninger in 2019 prior to her widespread success this year seem a lot like the guerilla promo campaigns for Nicki Minaj and Skylar Grey (well, not so much success with the latter). But I’ll forgive it, because Bridgers is an excellent songwriter.

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AND THE BEST SONG OF 2020 IS…

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1. California Halo Blue – AWOLNATION — 

As usual, I throw out any sort of credibility I may have possibly built up with the past 24 choices with one mainstream alternative pick that forever relegates me to the unrefined masses instead of the erudite tastemakers of the world. Just can’t kick the habit. I’ve always been an AWOLNATION apologist, wincing when they’re lumped in with their jock jam peers because of their massive breakthrough “Sail”. Frontman Aaron Bruno has done nothing if not continually strove to set himself apart from the stadium fillers he directly influenced. For nearly a decade he avoided easy or lazy hooks, opting for small doses of experimentation instead.

He’s still avoiding easy or lazy hooks on his 2020 album, but this time it’s in favour of big, sky-spanning hooks. Where 2018’s Here Come the Runts was his “back-to-basics” record sonically,  Angel Miners and the Lightning Riders is Bruno taking songwriting back to the basics. “California Halo Blue” isn’t ambitious stylistically, shooting directly for the stars with no regrets. It’s all imperial majesty, the kind of song that Coldplay’s “Paradise” wanted to be but failed with its incredibly annoying “PARA-PARA-paradise” chorus. It’s also the kind of song that doesn’t really sit well in any spot other than #1. This was streamlined to be the spiritual sequel to 2011’s enormous “Sail”: a massive chart-topper. In that way, it succeeded.

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The 5 Best Albums of 2020

Here’s something totally and completely unexpected that even a miser like myself can’t deny: there were actually a lot of good albums this year. Like actual, solid records that had more than one great song on them. This is the first time in probably almost a decade that I actually had to pare down a list to just five picks. Small miracles. So here they are, the most well-rounded efforts of 2020 taken into consideration as a whole piece of work:  

5. [Echoes]– The Jerry Cans

(Choice Cuts: “Qaumajuujusi”, “On the Rocks”, “SOS”) 

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4. [Purple Noon]– Washed Out

(Choice Cuts: “Hide”, “Haunt”, “Too Late”) 

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3. [Ohms]- Deftones

(Choice Cuts: “Ceremony”, “Radiant City”, “Error”) 

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2. [The Ascension]- Sufjan Stevens

(Choice Cuts: “Sugar”, “Run Away With Me”, “The Ascension”) 

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1. [Imploding the Mirage]- The Killers

(Choice Cuts: “Dying Breed”, “Fire in Bone”, “My God”) 


THE REST OF 2020

It might be slightly exaggerated, but 338K people agree that the music industry is an abject failure that refuses to learn from their mistakes. You had two massive superstars teaming up for a huge comeback single, and it had all the impact of a light drizzle. Why did no one think to actually write a good song for them??

Or, you know, for anyone. There was only one big song in 2020, and that’s an indisputable fact. Nobody is going to remember any pop hits from this year other than “WAP”, and even that is more due to the controversy it created rather than the track itself.

And there was nothing else. Gaga and Grande flopped. Bieber’s new songs flopped. Billie Eilish’s new songs flopped. Dua Lipa just barely registered on the radar. Industry execs for some reason are throwing the promo money behind songs with bad songwriting, and giving no money to songs with a strong songwriting team behind them. 

Taylor Swift was at least shrewd with her two secret albums, eschewing big pop hits for quiet pop-folk that effectively dodges any criticism that it’s not catchy because these were her “artistic” albums. It was a clever move that masks the fact she is running out of hit power (See: the horrendous “Me”).

Is it even worth mentioning alternative rock anymore? It seems now that bands that want to crossover don’t even bother starting off with a credible phase at first, and those that want to stay credible just aren’t writing strong enough material. The only notable development this year? Machine Gun Kelly doing a 180 and going full pop-punk.

What annoying trends were en vogue this year? Similar to those of years past.

– Short songs with long outros (see: the waste that was the Weeknd’s “Faith)

– The triangle as instrument (see: Joywave, The Killers, 5 Seconds of Summer, Washed Out)

– Really loud drums (see: Gord Downie’s posthumous album, Washed Out)

– Blown out/clipped/analog-sounding audio.

In conclusion, it’s clear that memes are the future. TikTok and other social media platforms are going to dictate what songs will have any sort of success. How they’re going to reach a wider populace than trend-hopping zoomers is to be decided, but it is a solid foundation. While they didn’t reach mass ubiquity, songs like “Savage”, “Blinding Lights”, “Coffee For Your Head”, and the coffin dancing song are at least all familiar to internet citizens. Now it’s just a matter of getting those citizens off the internet and into arenas.

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Anyway, that’s it, bye.