I can’t recall a recent year from memory that will leave such a stark set of distinct memories as 2020 will, the result of a year full of ominous events and much hardship. Major historical events came, from hellacious wildfires to a global COVID-19 pandemic, every week lurched forward as the months slowly passed, you gradually learned that getting out of bed meant scrolling what only promised to be more bad news. Then, at the end of May, more did come when a Minneapolis cop, Derek Chauvin murdered African-American George Floyd who was in his custody for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. The punishment—putting the full brunt of his weight on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 full minutes, effectively suffocating him—was extreme for such a relatively small crime, or any crime for that matter. But given it was caught on video tape, it ceased to be merely another in a string of assaults, or worse murder, at the hands of the police, and sparked world wide protests in response. Some, in various degrees, remain. Then there was was the constant anxiety offered from the White House, whether it was impeachment at the beginning of the year, or a COVID-19 response that skirted scientists, preached the virtues of possibly drinking bleach as a cure, and generally always bordered on a circus clown show. Then, the eventual questioning of the democratic process as a whole, 2020 couldn’t go out any other way. More specifically to Pop, as any year can attest, we lost a number of true legends, from legendary pioneer Little Richard, drummer Neil Peart, Soul Makossa, soul singer-songwriter Bill Withers, folk balladeer John Prine, Afrobeat legend Tony Allen, trailblazer Millie Small (who authored ‘My Boy Lollipop’ one of the sweetest pieces of Pop confection you’ll ever hear), Phil May, Ennio Morricone (who touched Pop only briefly, but did hundreds of great soundtracks that have transfixed rockers since his earliest efforts), Peter Green, Wayne Fontana, electronic originator Simeon Coxe, Toots Hibbert, Johnny Nash, guitar maverick and virtuoso Eddie Van Halen, Gordon Haskell, Spencer Davis, Charley Pride, and Leslie West, amongst dozens of others.
Given the nature of the events of 2020, you’re almost tempted to showcase songs that directly came from its events; whether it was the slightly hilarious work of Portuguese guitarist Andre Antunes who gifted us ‘Karen Metal’ where he constructed songs from the viral, crazed rants of American conservatives, who, though they held 2 out of 3 halls of government and a multi-billion dollar news industry, still claim they are unspoken for and underrepresented in the countries political discourse. Or, similarly of the time, but much more astute, was the song constructed around a handcuffed woman’s taunts to a police offer who was, in her estimation, about “to lose your job ‘cause you are detaining me for nothing”. Once DJ Akademiks built a tune around her rhythmic flow, all involved had 2020’s most acrimonious, if still joyous, hit that wasn’t. Others followed suit, and practically an EP worth of different quality takes resulted. Easily worst of all were the songs and videos around Donald Trump’s rally dancing, which prompted those to mock it claiming his moves resembled him “jerking off ghosts”. It was all pretty funny, his administration constantly giving creative internet trolls plenty of fodder, assisting in getting everyone through the difficult times with a few belly laughs. Music fans were given constant reminders that it wasn’t just any other year, as concerts were canceled everywhere and our favorite venues and rock clubs struggled to survive. Plus, most of our greatest artists need a touring schedule to survive, and even in ‘normal’ years seek other ways of employment in a gig economy to survive, many of which were halted or evaporated, with little being offered from Washington D.C. in way of assistance. Other rockers like Mike Love, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison did the best to (further) tarnish their legacies by playing to the crazies with terrible Pop songs about a litany of conspiracy theories or anti-mask stances.
That being said, thinking about any turbulent time, and the music it produced, sometimes the music defines the period as much as the period defining it. This year that was especially true, as there wasn’t a lot of forewarning that a global pandemic would render plans or outside lives moot for most of the year (and beyond). So the great music, in most cases, defined the time, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters appearing out of the blue as countries locked down and people stayed indoors, the grim, steely determination of the record saying something, even if the record had no knowledge of a deadly viruses. Similar was Run the Jewels’ RTJ4, perhaps my favorite LP of theirs, which is saying something as the previous three are all magnificent, but appearing stuffed full of references to police brutality and systemic oppression, you understand that this record wasn’t made to offer a statement on George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests, but rather that it was a record in tune with societal ills that are decades (but probably centuries) old in some cases, and their record merely happened to come out near the most recent event in a long chain of them. Perhaps this is a way of me saying that whenever I construct such a list, my preferences are first and foremost often with the openly stated goal that I want rock n’ roll to remain front and center, regardless of its diminished status in the mainstream. Songs that to me speak clearly to defining their time, but more accurately will withstand the test of time and exist as great works beyond this disastrous year.
Of course the events of this year disregard the usual happenstance discovering of new music found randomly from going to shows and seeing artists you’d never previously been aware of added to the top of bills and been knocked flat on your back in amazement. Live the spectacle can reward anonymity and sensibility, a sympathetic booker can attach bands to others that can shorten the scouring that fans would have to do on their own over endless hours tethered to an electronic device. Those hours, for someone like me who now plies my trade via a remote, working-from-home schedule, seemed in endless abundance. The reverse to all this thinking however is the opposite—many an artist I’ve dug going into a show and left soured, the mix or the presentation live lacking from the studio mastery presented on LP. So, this year, for the first time, there was an attention to new releases like never before—previous years I’d listened to, in the neighborhood of 175-200 records, EPs, or singles, while this year I sailed easily past 300, and if I’m honest with the sampling, probably 350. This isn’t a brag of course, as this year, as I said, workdays often turned to feeling like weeks at times, the usual 9-5 becoming often an 8 to noon, then picking back up from 5-10pm, affording me hours to cycle, shop for groceries, or walk about, a few feet safely from anyone else. But always, when working alone, records buzzed into my ears, sometimes appearing before me like a boulder I’d drag up a hill to only see it stumble back to the ravine below when the next Friday’s releases hit the market. Music then, not unlike the aforementioned viral fan edits or homemade agitprop, was as much a refuge as it was a chronicler of the times.
I’ve never openly stated this, but this year it was even more pronounced than ever so I might as well utter it aloud now: I’ve always liked making my instantaneous year end listening lists public compared to my film lists as Pop music, in this regard, is a truer form for the fan (or in this case, the hopeless obsessive). Year end film lists, even critic ones (and often even moreso of critic ones as there is a subgroup of ‘glitterati’ who generally use lists not to push fandom, but to build non-inclusionary clubs and self-congratulate) are ripe with laziness and error, the result of world cinema release dates sometimes varying year to year, resulting in a glut of 12 to 24 month old movies appearing incorrectly in lists. But rather than seeing more, or subverting the system the best one can and dealing with the results, or—god forbid—just waiting a few years when you can actually pit films from Japan and Korea accurately against ones from Hollywood, we see lists with myopic American release date-centricity. In music, however, when a record releases, it’s almost everywhere, whether the band goes straight to a service like soundcloud or bandcamp, or is on label that approves Spotify or Apple Music for release day streaming. Listeners don’t have to wait until a record hits their geographical market, thus, lists such as this are purely about what you could get to, carving out as much time as possible to produce lists that best reflect tastes and the quality of that years output. This immediacy is greatly preferred and is especially true in a year when cinema-going was less than 3 months, and many film releases punted to 2021 or beyond. Given my previous statement(s) about just how much time I was able to stream music this year, it amounted to a Top 150 again, with this year doing a slight twist. I’ve bucketed out the favorites by tiers rather than numeric listing, so you’ll see 150-101, then 100-76, 75-51, 50-26, and finally a 25-1 with each tier just a listing of 25 (or 50 for the first tier) unordered. I found that this year was numbers didn’t matter that much, such was the abundance of riches I found as I listed more and more.
Today then, I posit my favorite 25 songs from this year, in order alphabetically by artist, and in the following days post the rest of my album selections. Please seek these brilliant tunes out on whatever platform you prefer, with the caveat in mind to always support artists by purchasing those you love. (Part 2, 175-51, can be viewed here, while Part 3, 50-26 is here, the final installment, Part 4, covers records 25-1 and is here)
‘Sunkist’, 2nd Grade (from Hit to Hit)
‘New Curfew’, Adulkt Life (from Book of Curses)
‘Relay’, Fiona Apple (from Fetch the Bolt Cutters)
‘Crushed by Fear Destroyer’, Arbor Labor Union (from New Petal Instants)
‘(Wish You Was)’ Madball Baby’, Brandy (from The Gift of Repetition)
‘Heavy Liquid’, Casual Nun (from Resort for Dead Desires)
‘Heavy Metal’, Cindy Lee (from What’s Tonight to Eternity)
‘Hot Fruit’, Clear Channel (from Hell)
‘Wise Guy Algorithm’, the Cowboys (from Room of Clons)
‘Garden Song’, Cry Out (from More Echoes of a Question Never Answered… Why?)
‘Teenage Hive’, FACS (from Void Moments)
‘The Other Side of the Night’, Gnod and Radar Men from the Moon (from Temple ov BBV)
‘People’s Park’, Horse Lords (from The Common Task)
‘Karma Repair Kit’, Joan of Arc (from Tim Melina Theo Bobby)
‘This Is The Squeeze’, Melt Yourself Down (from 100% Yes)
‘The Tree’, Mourn (from Self Worth)
‘Hot Like Jungle’, Pottery (from Welcome to Bobby’s Motel)
‘Worm In Heaven’, Protomartyr (from Ultimate Success Today)
‘Perfect Day’, RVG (from Feral)
‘Pleasure’, Radar Men from the Moon (from The Bestial Light)
‘You Might Be Happy Someday’, the Reds, Pinks and Purples (from You Might Be Happy Someday)
‘Electric Meditations’, the Silence (from Electric Meditations)
‘Ummon’, SLIFT (from UMMON)
‘I Dream of Valves Exploding’, Slum of Legs (from Slum of Legs)
‘Blue’, Sweeping Promises (from Hunger for a Way Out)