Back once again!
Welcome back to the 2020 instalment of my yearly favourite songs countdown. If you missed yesterday’s post, where we covered #50 – #31, or just need a refresher, then click on over here to get that goodness. Today, we’re working through the midfield. Also, after #25, the ranking is basically arbitrary even by ‘best songs list’ standards. It’s been that kind of year for music.
(Big thanks to Moosey for making this series’ headers! Follow them on Twitter and buy their books!)
30] Bonny Light Horseman
Bonny Light Horseman
Album unfortunately has yet to do anything for me, but “The Roving” is a real showstopping standout nonetheless. There’s something so simply devastating about that chorus: “I knew her love was changing, by the roving of her eye.” So straightforward yet so true and so gutting that its constant repetition just gets more and more aching with each go-around. I also love how casually queer it is, too. Singer Anaïs Mitchell only invokes the narrator’s gender once but in a very non-specific way – “you said that if you marry, I could be the man” can be read as establishing the narrator as the metaphorical man in the same-sex relationship – that it works very easily as an ode to queer heartbreak without having to subscribe to extremely weird Sappho Swift Tumblr accounts. It’s nice to hear something queer-y in the folk-country space for once. (On a similar tip but actually full-bore queer, Katie Pruitt’s debut album is very good and got screwed over by my not hearing it for the first time until mid-December.)
“Say the Name”
Visions of Bodies Being Burned
Best rap hook of the year. I deliberately waited until Visions was released in late October to hear “Say the Name” for the first time and it absolutely lived up to the hype. And that’s despite basically all of its elements seeming like recipes for disaster. Flipping one of the most striking lines from arguably the best horrorcore track of all-time (Gheto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks”) to act as a hook with pitch-shifted vocals should be cartoonish but somehow isn’t. Daveed Diggs literally rapping the plot of Candyman in gory detail should have real ‘Demi Adejuyigbe parodies of Will Smith movie raps’ energy, but his sheer force of commanding personality and a precise pen make it work. William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes’ production, free of clipping.’s usual abrasion, aims to replicate vintage Nine Inch Nails and, instead of the stench of rip-off, create something wholly of their own by the magnificently cinematic outro. If I’m Nia DaCosta, I’m lying awake at night wondering if I can get away with playing this over the end credits of the new Candyman.
“Aries (Feat. Peter Hook & Georgia)”
Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
And here’s where the ‘one song per artist’ rule really screws over a potential ranking on the Top 50, as the eventual winner of the possible nominees finds itself being out-positioned by more immediately killer songs further up-field. For those of you wondering, a good seven of the tracks featured on Song Machine were up for contention – the others being “Strange Timez,” “Valley of the Pagans,” “Pac-Man,” “Desolé,” “Momentary Bliss,” and “Opium” – which is a testament to the batting average of my favourite band’s seventh proper album. But “Aries” won out for three reasons. The first being a new Peter Hook bassline; as someone who actively celebrated the arrival of New Order’s Substance onto streaming services this year, that should tell you everything you need to know. The second being that vocally it’s all 2D, and all 2D without that speakerphone vocoder Damon’s been weirdly over-reliant on since reactivating Gorillaz. The third being that lyrically it manages to work both in-universe for Gorillaz (2D singing about his addictions to both drugs and Murdoc’s abusive relationship with him) and out-universe for Damon (it’s very obviously a Brexit lament), which is a key aspect of all great Gorillaz songs.
27] Rina Sawayama
“Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)”
WHY. DID. COVID. HAVE. TO. TAKE. THE. CLUBS. FUCK. Christ, I love how this song makes me feel. Strutting along like a fucking femme badass, this thing was made for catwalks at the club. That rubbery bassline, and the production in general which really nails the compressed ‘so produced you could bounce pound coins off it’ feel of 00s club-pop without going too far and becoming painful to listen to. Rina, who might be this year’s winner of Best New Vocalist (even if her 2017 EP was basically an album in all but designation), alternates between slightly vulnerable efforts to properly pump herself up – lyrically, it’s an interrogation of society’s sexist insistence that women must fashion themselves to be more like the boys in order to get ahead – and deliciously self-assured purrs of shit-talk that continues the album’s examinations of how her Japanese ancestry affected her upbringing in the UK. It is also, and I cannot stress this enough, a BOP.
26] Denzel Curry x Kenny Beats
Denzel’s tossed off freestyles are better than anything most of your favourite rappers will drop in their entire careers. How do you even begin to pick the best bar out of this thing? “Finito, I get new jerseys like I was a guido.” “You gotta milk the game, son, I couldn’t bottle-feed you.” “So braggadocious/Spit sick shit, it’s atrocious/Risin’ like the stocks, stockbroking.” “If the game was a tooth, I’m a fuckin’ pair of pliers.” I mean, Jesus goddamned Christ, Denzel! I can’t be an accessory to any more murders; not after the year professional wrestling’s had! Also, Kenny is very quickly becoming one of my favourite producers after this, The Cave, and his work on that Rico Nasty mini-album from last year. Those rattling jungle boogie bangs, mmm! Also, how every little accent to Denzel’s bars functions as an additional punchline being squeezed in after the big joke, reminiscent of how many of the all-time great sitcoms approach joke construction. *chef’s kiss*
25] illuminati hotties
“b yr own b”
FREE I.H.: This is NOT the One You’ve Been Waiting For
Sarah Tudzin is really, really, really damn good at hooks. That much was obvious throughout kill yr frenemies, but “b yr own b” may be her biggest and most insidiously effective yet. I have been humming or singing “If you’re fine, then I’m fine too/I got nothing to lose/If I’m fine, you must be too/You got nothing to lose” consistently for the past six months. It has the same energy as They Might Be Giants’ “Glean” from back in 2015 where just a snatch of it in my head at any point for any reason causes it to become the only thing I’m mentally thinking of for the rest of the day no matter what I try. Fortunately for my sanity, and my voice after multiple Principal Scudworth “THERE GOES MY WHOLE DAY!” impersonations, the song attached to that hook is simple but damn great. Those guitars sound immaculate, the breakbeats are just as catchy as the melody, and the passive-aggressive exhausted sentiment of the lyrics are very befitting for the year I’ve had with my family.
24] Kero Kero Bonito
It’s Bugsnax! – Single
I know that the Internet has a habit of meme-ing everything into insufferable ‘ironic’ garbage for anyone trying to approach the afflicted subject with sincerity, but “It’s Bugsnax!” really does not deserve that fate. Just like Bonito Generation-era KKB, the craft genuinely holds up and is done with such a goofy sincerity that those whose fight-or-flight reflexes aren’t immediately activated by the marimbas cannot help but be won over. There’s a reason why the best Saturday morning cartoons have genuinely banger theme songs. And, honestly, I just get this instinctual grin every time Sarah Bonito does that “ooooooaaaaaahhhhhh/talkin’ bout Bugsnax!” I really cherished throughout the crushing cynicism and misery of 2020. We all need something completely wholesome and good and innocent and definitely not hiding any messed-up twists underneath the surface every once in a while, like Bugsnax! …err, quick, hit ‘em with the last chorus key change before they cotton on!
Fake It Flowers
‘Lead with your best shot’ was the mantra of the CD era, when pop albums would intentionally stuff the biggest singles into the opening run to take advantage of listener’s car journeys only being so long. Bea Kristi undoubtedly remembers that adage since her debut album kicks off with its most irresistible offering, the punchy and ginormous “Care.” Madchester drums, shoegazing effects-drenched guitars, vocals that find the intersection between Echobelly and Lush, a tasty post-chorus guitar lick somehow catchier than the actual stop-go chorus. Crucially, “Care” would also slide in perfectly on the soundtracks to Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, Never Been Kissed, Josie and the Pussycats, But I’m A Cheerleader, et al and that’s what takes the song from ‘good’ to ‘play it again for the tenth time in an hour, Alexa, THAT’S AN ORDER!’
22] Jamie xx
Idontknow – Single
I refuse to believe that this was released back in April. I mean, I know that it was cos Jamie’s long-anticipated solo return (before going right back to giving us nothing queen) ended up happening about two weeks into the UK’s first lockdown and “Idontknow” kind of perfectly reflected the headspace of that time. It’s all anxious, clattering, paranoid. If the tracks which made up In Colour presented a certain lightness and freeness for an artist whose work up to then (both solo and as a member of The xx) was defined by its mood and insularity, this loosie(?) goes right back to the darker menace and uncertainty of Jamie’s pre-Colour singles and work on the Gil Scott-Heron remix album We’re New Here. When it properly dives in, there’s a scatterbrained dizzy trippiness that could not have more accurately represented the maelstrom of early lockdown life if it had tried (Jamie had been working on the song for years trying to get it just right). Brief flashes of lucid clarity appear via the song’s other rapidly-cut pitch-shifted vocal sample and a climactic bed of keys, but they’re snatched away just as quickly as they enter, unresolved and uneasy. Oh my gosh.
Women in Music Pt. III
Dirty little secret, this, but a lot of the best 90s songs were the dirty R&B fuck jams. The ones whose dirtiness weren’t immediately apparent because they weren’t lyrically explicit, but the funky professionalism of the music and ultra-smooth vocal performances, combined with the fact that they were almost always about booty calls, meant you knew they were designed for shit going down. (It’s Donell Jones & Left-Eye’s “U Know What’s Up,” I’m specifically talking about “U Know What’s Up” being one of the best songs of the 90s.) And, on our continuing voyage through 2020s Indie Women Pillaging 90s Pop Sounds, HAIM undoubtedly studied just as much at that particular altar as they did Sheryl Crow, Joni Mitchell and 80s Fleetwood Mac given how dead-on they get that sound with “3 AM.” But with a delicious feminine twist that, like a flip on the remarkably similar Arctic Monkeys’ “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?,” is actually about the exhaustion of being on the receiving end of endless booty calls. Of, like, being completely done with these guys but simultaneously enjoying the thrill and pleasure they can potentially provide.
20] Run the Jewels
“a few words for the firing squad (radiation)”
I love my Banger RTJs – whenever “yankee and the brave” blasts out, I just wanna sprint through every single wall in my neighbourhood – and I love my Political RTJs – “walking in the snow” understandably got the attention upon release, but I’d argue “JU$T” is the more potent example on this album – but I remain continually stunned by just how reliably Emotional RTJs manage to knock me out. The points on each album where Killer Mike and El-P drop the braggadocio, dick jokes and most of the venomous fire to bleed their souls over the track. You’d think by now I’d be used to this trick, but “firing squad” would seem to indicate absolutely not. I don’t know if these are my favourite Mike and El verses, they’re probably not even my favourite ones on the album, but they’re the ones I’ve most connected to this year, especially when combined with that cinematic climactic beat. The pair spilling their anxieties over our current dystopia and personal set-backs (Mike’s story of his mother dying whilst he was on tour), turning that trauma and pain into one last act of righteous defiance to signify they and the listener are not alone in spite of it all. THAT’S RTJ to me and it’s what keeps me coming back time and time again.
19] Bree Runway
“DAMN DANIEL (with Yung Baby Tate)”
All of this. Every second of this. It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect at what it sets out to do. And all of what it sets out to do is entirely my shit. The throwback hip house production. Bree’s British accent slipping out in her verses. The escalation on the chorus purpose-designed for dropping them asses right to the floor mid-crump. The way Yung Baby Tate just audibly struts onto the track. How both of their characters, who would normally be ridiculed or played for laughs in both art and society, are given dignity and gloriously satisfying revenge through effective concise storytelling. That bridge where they both swap lines; the kind of coming-together moment that turns a collab into a proper duet and elevates good duets into all-timer pop classics. The outro. This thing has had me doing full White gay/White Chicks moves in my kitchen non-stop for the past month and basically the only reason why it’s not in the Top 10 is because I was late to the party and didn’t listen to r/popheads when they rightly pushed this upon its April release. Seriously, come March, I’m gonna look at this list and go “I did ‘DAMN DANIEL’ dirty.”
Just like with BROCKHAMPTON in 2017, there were a smorgasbord of potential SAULT songs that could’ve made the list – “Wildflowers” is the one cracking everyone else’s, but shout outs too to “Monsters,” “Strong,” “Little Boy,” and “Free” – but, just like with BROCKHAMPTON in 2017, I gotta go with the girl who brought me to the dance in the first place. The second that 1:35 of “Fearless” hit, I was completely sold on SAULT. I mean, the instant that those strings came in, I was sent, I ascended. It’s a good thing I’m not a reaction YouTuber because the face and arm flapping motions I involuntarily made when they hit would have lived in Internet meme infamy for years to come, not exaggerating. The torrent of emotion in that cascade, so much so that the track frankly doesn’t even need the lyrics buried enough them (it took me multiple listens and Genius being open to even realise there were intelligible lyrics there), is tremendous and, somehow, almost matched by the strings that appear at 2:34. Ugh, SO GOOD!
17] Dinner Party
“Freeze Tag” and its vocal mantra of tired calm in the face of racist policing is the more obviously vital and timely piece on Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder and Kamasi Washington’s collaborative EP. But, personally, I feel like the centrepiece instrumental “First Responders” captures the vibe of the moment just as well if not more so. Maybe that’s just because I can sense the spectrum of feeling that Washington puts into his saxophone across the track’s five minutes and how that interplays with Glasper’s guitar and piano. Martin and Wonder’s back beat – partly repurposed from a Boondocks episode – has a kinda neutral melancholia which allows Washington and Glasper to explore a variety of potential Black scenarios through their instruments. I hear a celebratory family cookout, I hear a struggling college student walking back to their overpriced dorm in the city as the sun sets, I hear an unjustifiable stop-and-frisk on the verge of going horribly wrong, I hear four kindred spirits jamming their feels out in the hopes of reaching a shared catharsis. It lasts five minutes, I’d gladly take fifteen more.
16] Porridge Radio
“Long” is Every Bad’s thesis statement. Everything that the band’s sophomore album is attempting to do can be found in this one sprawling aural bloodletting, even whilst its more full-bore deployment of those tropes can simultaneously make it somewhat of an outlier. Post-punk adjacent alt-rock focussed around mantra-like lyrical repetition that builds and builds with the anger and bitterness and pain and frustration spilling over in a flood of jagged guitars and synths and biting vocals that can be the audio equivalent of drowning in an ever-rising dark water snuffing out the light until, finally, the pool is drained, the rage dissipates, and a sense of unfulfillment remains, alongside the question of if it even accomplished anything. For some reason, the rest of Every Bad is yet to click with me. But “Long,” the one where everything is pushed to the brink, instantly stood out when I heard it in April and has received hundreds plays since then. It’s a stunner of a track, a reflection of the existential stasis I (and most likely everyone else) has been forced into this year.
“Black Qualls (Feat. Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington & Childish Gambino)”
It Is What It Is
I am a sucker for that Parliament-type funk; that stomp of the bass drum, steady hi-hat, and bass work that is nimble whilst still pummelling the low-end. Anything that can conjure up the Clinton/Collins spirits immediately gets my attention and at least ten replays of further curious interest. But “Black Qualls” isn’t just P-Funk. Thundercat’s first taste from the excellent It Is What It Is carries a very heavy mood with it, as the track’s four Steves (also including co-producer Flying Lotus) find themselves being struck with the niggling fear that afflicts all successful Black men. Are they “keeping it real?” Wanting to “post this on the ‘Gram, but don’t think I should… cos [they’ve] been robbed before.” “Sometimes [they] wanna say [they’re] blessed” but does that open them up to attacks from their fellow man, not to mention the unspoken other major threat that all Black people deal with each day? It’s a mellow track despite its positive message, and the (superior) album version is topped off with a Gambino verse that acts as a release of that paranoid anxiety.
“Lavender (with Channel Tres)”
MMM, IT’S SO SMOOTH, I’M SLIPPING ALL OVER MY HOUSE! I think the key difference between Disclosure’s pre- and post-Settle work is that on their totemic debut they would force the guest vocalists to come into the Disclosure world, whilst everything afterwards has seen the duo trying to meet them more on the guests’ playing field. Even if it’s yet to result in a collection of work as wall-to-wall essential as Settle, it’s an admirable approach and pays MASSIVE dividends on tracks like “Lavender.” This kind of upmarket gleaming French disco house is exactly where Channel Tres – whose own solo work keeps just missing these lists, I swear – shines, that extremely silky voice of his like melted chocolate to the earholes. But for its obvious stylistic aping, this is still recognisably a Disclosure track in the way that bass bounces throughout, the slightly-delayed drop at 3:26, and the Lawrence brothers’ unlikely but sensational harmonies. That stretch from the bridge to the beat dropping back in is easily the best part of the entire album and one of my favourites in all of music this year. I need those vaccines mass-distributed pronto so I can dance like mad to this at a live show, ta.
13] Victoria Monét
OK, so, hopefully by this point 8,000+ words deep into our yearly spelunking of my musical tastes, you should have built up a pretty solid sketch of my personality and start to being able to deduce on your own the kinds of stuff I go goo-goo heart-eyes Tex Avery wolf-whilstle gaga over. Pavlovian responses you can use as a vital shorthand indicator that I’m still me. So, with that said… do I really need to tell you why this is so high? It’s funky 90s fuck-jam R&B. It’s soulful vocals. It’s disco-flip hi-hats with double opens on the eighth beat. It’s a “Take Me Out”-level tempo change transition within the first 45 seconds. It’s that specific alternating-descent vocal melody in the pre-chorus. It’s bass so filthy it should come with an NC-17 rating. It’s horns, glorious horns, arriving right at the point needed to push the thing over the top! It’s the club. It’s Soul Train line. It’s just delirious! If there ever comes a day where I am not boogying all (3) of my (terrible) dance moves to a song like this, you need to call XCOM immediately cos the aliens will have invaded and I will have been body-snatched.
It turns out I actually really, really miss mosh pits. I don’t even go to that many specifically rock or punk shows (or at least shows with mosh pits), but it turns out that I have badly missed the cathartic, shared, friendly release being able to just surrender to the chaotic churn of a good sweaty pit whilst screaming back the words to a true ripper. Especially with everything that’s been going on in my life this year that has nothing to do with the plague, I so could’ve done with the experience of diving right into the middle of a pit to just let all this fear and self-hatred and frustration and anxiety flow into some positive energy whilst Dogleg tore through “Hotlines.” Instead, I’ve just had to settle for imagining that sensation over countless listens of the song and doing questionable damage to my throat from screaming back “IF I COULD FIND THE CONFIDENCE” alone at home.
11] U.S. Girls
“4 American Dollars”
Remember two years ago when I went properly wild over Meg Remy’s incredible In a Poem Unlimited? How she paired confrontational and deeply pissed-off excoriations of modern society, especially for leftist women, with retro-pop-funk jams that sounded like a million bucks? Yeah? “4 American Dollars” is another one of those and, nope, the effect hasn’t worn off in the least yet. And whilst the whole of thing is fantastic – Remy’s lyrics are direct and biting, the addition of proper distinct backing vocalists furthers the early-70s vibes, those strings – it’s when the song transitions into a vamp jam for the second half that the BOP certification is assured dozens of times over. The groove is just spectacular, Remy’s band adding and taking away new layers at precisely the correct time, so much so that even though it lasts almost three-and-a-half minutes I would gladly hear a version that runs for double the time. For a song that’s thematically pretty heavy (cos y’know capitalism), there’s a tangible sense of fun and joy when that jam gets locked in even before the giggling studio chatter breaks through in the last minute. Shame about the literal entire rest of the album, but at least this slaps.
Come on back tomorrow for the Top 10.
Callie Petch, time will let you down.