And now: the headline acts.
Welcome back to the finale of my Top 50 Songs of 2020 countdown! No mucking about, we got weapons-grade bops, jams, and slappers to get to. If you’ve missed the prior two entries in this series, where we covered #50 – #31 and #30 – #11, then you can go get caught up at the respective links. Otherwise, hit it!
10] Jessie Ware
“Save a Kiss”
What’s Your Pleasure?
If 2020’s music has taught me to fully appreciate anything, it’s been the values of a good post-chorus and well-executed string section, both elements that the Great Pop Girl Disco Arms Race of 2020 have served up in spades. Jessie Ware’s contribution to that throwdown has a real twilight-of-the-dancefloor early-80s post-disco vibe, the kind of immaculate-sounding yearning lust ballad that seems to exist forever dangling above the room in a shimmering mirrorball, and even a touch Kate Bush in its lyrical poetic drama. But undoubtedly the biggest element of its DNA is Robyn. This is basically “Dancing On My Own” and “Because It’s In the Music” playing at the same time in the greatest disco to ever exist; you can even sense the smoke from the mid-range fog machines dissipating as the song fades away. Of fucking course, I love this! More artists should be cribbing from Robyn and, in a take that’ll probably get me crucified, Ware gets so much more affecting emotion out of her vocal performance without ever having to fully unleash like Robyn does.
09] Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
“Cars in Space”
Sideways to New Italy
One of the reasons why this shift in recent years to having album rollouts take several months and involving enough singles to make up half the record deeply irks me is because I get very conscious about potentially wearing out a song in the run up to the album’s release. I’m that weirdo who still loves the [FRESH ALBUM] experience, of going through something with minimal prior knowledge/spoils in order to take in a record I’m especially excited for, and I also have a slightly obsessive mind where, when it hears something it really likes, it won’t let me not think about or repeat it over and over again for ages afterwards. So, there are songs I just cannot listen to with the same excitement and vigour they once gave me or don’t hit the same by the time the album drops because I’ve just gotten too used to them. I bring this up because “Cars in Space” dropped four months before RBCF’s sophomore album released and, in the ten months since, I am still yet to make it through that outro without instinctively pogoing around in pure beaming energy. These guys are just stupendously good at guitar music, seriously.
08] Carly Rae Jepsen
“Comeback (Feat. Bleachers)”
Dedicated Side B
Oh, you’d better believe I am all aboard the Carly train, by this point! How can I not stan a queen who so effortlessly pens beautiful pristine romantic ballads like “Comeback,” then inexplicably decides it’s only Side B worthy when it’d be in the S+-tier of somebody like Tones And I? Wonderfully warm production that rides our current Indie cool trends whilst not being shy of maximalism when called for, sonically similar to E·MO·TION’s “Warm Blood” and “All That.” Affecting poetic lyrics about love and heartbreak in all its forms – here pulling a fantastic switch-up halfway through to reveal that this break-up song is really a heartfelt declaration of love and forgiveness by somebody who is finally ready to commit after having experienced personal growth. The personality and sincerity Carly puts into her vocals, of someone who constantly wears her heart on her sleeve no matter how often she gets hurt. And, of course, hooks upon hooks upon hooks; the moment Carly hits the bridge and leads into the real hook is just pure pop genius! I’m just saying, if she asks me to kill someone on her behalf, I’m at the point where I would only mildly hesitate.
07] Dua Lipa
A weird thing happened when I first heard “Hallucinate.” The first time the chorus played and Dua hit those “mi-mi-mi-mind”s, I could feel myself tearing up. That’s objectively weird, right? Especially since “Hallucinate” isn’t a ballad, it’s a storming 90s piano house banger that couldn’t be more Confessions on a Dancefloor Madonna if it had Stuart Price co-producing it (which it does). It’s the kind of song that would’ve ruled radios, clubs, TV station idents, festivals, and charts in any decent year, and the even rarer example of such a song where I wouldn’t have minded such oversaturation in the least. It bangs. So, the near-tears. Weird, right? Well, Future Nostalgia released on 27th March, about a week into lockdown and three weeks after my Dad’s accident whilst he was still mid-coma, a time where I was basically nothing but anxiety and loneliness and extreme depression. So, the serotonin that coursed through me when those multi-tracked “mi-mi-mi-mind”s first arrived was a deeply vital reminder of a feeling I was worried may not return and it overwhelmed me. Laugh all you want, but that’s what good pop music is capable of. Even now, it can still do that to me on some listens and I’m grateful each time.
06] Fiona Apple
Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Jaw-drops and chills, every single time. Subtlety and poeticism can be overrated. Sometimes, you gotta go straight for the fucking throat. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a whole album of going straight for the fucking throat, and even by the album’s own standards “you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in” is an atom bomb of a line delivered with pure disgusted venom. Fiona spends a lot of this album utilising the cadences and forms of stage musicals to organise her righteous exorcisms of trauma and a lifetime of misogynistic slights both personal and woman-wide – “For Her” pulls from a litany of stories she’d heard, most especially a former production intern she once knew – and that influence pays the biggest dividends here. Each shift in time signature a screeching lurch designed to unsteady every single time comfort or complacency threatens to set in. And then that bridge. A YouTube comment, of all places, really did put it best: “no one has ever said ‘good morning’ with as much commanding power as Fiona in this song and it shows.”
05] I’m Glad It’s You
Every Sun, Every Moon
Death has been on the mind a lot this year (COULDN’T POSSIBLY EXPLAIN WHY) and so I’ve been drawn more so than usual to emo music in its many forms and off-shoots (TOTAL COINCIDENCE THAT). Whilst I do enjoy the harder harsher stuff that aims for catharsis through pummelling definitive thrashes, nothing quite hit the spot like I’m Glad It’s You’s “Silent Ceremony” this year and the accompanying album. I keep bringing up Jimmy Eat World’s seminal Clarity when discussing this record and that’s because, especially on “Silent Ceremony,” I get the same enveloping comfort hole that prior album also has. The guitars drive and cry but they don’t bite, the drums tumble and hit so many double snaps and rolls but never pummel, the vocal tracks (where the band are joined by guest vocalist Sierra Aldulaimi) plead and yearn and struggle but never achieve resolution. It’s that ellipsis which I think most resonates with me. For all the song’s desperate desires for reconciliation and resolution, depicted here as a séance but just as much invoking the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice, none are found and the experience is left deliberately unfulfilled, the pain still fresh and raw (NO IDEA WHY I MIGHT RELATE TO THAT RIGHT NOW AT ALL).
04] The 1975
“Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied”
Notes on a Conditional Form
Forget “If You’re Too Shy,” THIS is the most The 1975 song that will ever exist, and not just because it’s an amalgamation of “Sincerity is Scary” & “If I Believe You” whilst also containing both lyrical and sonic callbacks to “Love It If We Made It” & “So Far (It’s Alright)” among others. You wanna understand why so many people, including myself, have fallen so deeply under the sway of Britain’s most polarising band, this is why. The expert magpie-like genre-blending that’s their stock in trade; here, mid-90s gospel chill-hop R&B. Sonically lush production courtesy of drummer George Daniel that just sounds incredible; I can envision the gradually-revealing stage lights on an off-Broadway number as that intro progresses and, Jesus, that guitar solo in the back-third is *ten thousand chef’s kisses*. Matty Healy’s introspective, earnest, arguably oversharing, and self-critical lyrics whose disarming wit (“I never fucked in a car/I was lying/I do it on my bed/Lying down/Not trying”) leads in to really affecting couplets (“Never getting sleep and forgetting to eat/I pretend that all these things agree with me”) that can just hurt. All wrapped up in a concise addictive pop package. My Spotify Wrapped had this as my most-listened to song of the year and, yeah, that absolutely tracks.
03] The Beths
“Out of Sight”
Jump Rope Gazers
No band working right now is doing better bridges or harmonies than The Beths. Not one. Not even your faves, unless your faves are in fact The Beths. This much was obvious two years ago when I put “Future Me Hates Me” at #9 entirely off the basis of that little progression at the end of each verse and the closing harmonies on the outro, but it’s good to get firm confirmation that it wasn’t a one-time thing. “Out of Sight” is similarly a fantastic song even without taking into context the middle-eight, bridge, and closing harmonies that push it over the top. A gorgeous little shoegaze-y ode to the difficulty of remaining committed in a relationship (romantic and platonic) with one heck of a chorus and Liz Stokes’ tender vocals. But it’s The Beths’ three secret weapons that lead to me being completely wrecked if I get caught in the right/wrong mood. The middle-eight that transitions between each section, with the descending guitar scale and drum roll that’s half played on the rim rather than the snare. The bridge, which is left hanging in the air for so long kicking up dust and thrashing in uncertainty. And those closing harmonies, multiple steps removed from Stokes’ main register and all the more gutting for it. This band really just does get it in every respect, stop sleeping on them.
“I Go Out at Night”
Pro tip for any budding artists looking to crack one of my yearly music lists: I cannot resist the kind of guitar tone that makes a song feel like taking off on a teenaged femme rocket ship. Much like how I singled out “Your Love’s Whore” as The song off Wolf Alice’s debut in 2015 almost entirely due to the guitar tone briefly heard before the first verse, “I Go Out at Night” instantly vaulted up to being my Song of the Year for half of 2020 the millisecond I first heard that guitar tone on the central riff. 90s queer alt-rock teenaged girl coming-of-age dramedy stuck in this shitty 2020s masculine body, what do I keep telling you? But even more than base audio nerd pleasures, it’s a song whose appeal grew evermore as 2020 stretched forever onwards. Frontwoman Julia Steiner’s lyrics focussing on the small pleasures that help stem her depression combined with the starry-eyed hope and wonder of the instrumentation gaining legitimate (if unexpected) resonance as the plague continued to take even more of those pleasures and connections from me and all of us. “Sometimes when I’m alone, I go out at night” should not hit the way that it has in 2020, but it does and… man, y’know?
01] Phoebe Bridgers
“I Know the End”
You just know. When one of your favourite songs ever plays for the first time, you just know. Perhaps not right away, it might take until you’ve gotten deep into the triple-digits of play counts before you consciously realise. But subconsciously, you know it when you hear it. Because music taste, and consequently music lists such as this one, are subjective. You can throw all the objective music theory and production knowhow and whatever into the discussion to explain how a song works, but the why is almost entirely subjective. It’s based on your personal feelings, your baggage, your preferences, the mood you’re in, the state of things for you at the time, and a million other little things that can trigger an instant and total connection to a piece of art completely unlike the next person who might experience it. So, when you first discover one of your favourite songs ever, you just know.
To that end, let’s recap what we’ve learned about me in the last six years of my doing full-on overlong write-ups for these lists. I am queer. I am depressed. I go to art to help process my emotional baggage and find a catharsis that I’m unable to otherwise because I am, to use the correct medical terminology, a right fucking state. I relate much more to female musicians/characters/women in general than I do men. I am absolutely petrified by the concept of death. I am a bleeding-heart romantic even whilst I’m not anywhere near emotionally healthy/stable enough to foster or deserve a romantic relationship myself. I love a good album closer. I adore a proper cathartic indie rock cry epic. I crawl into songs and use them as a comfort blanket when useful help is out of reach. And that this year, more than any other year somehow, has been the absolute fucking worst.
I have cried to “I Know the End” more times than I bothered to count because crying to songs is a relatively rare occurrence for me. If the initial whirring to life of the Mellotron doesn’t get me, if the imagery in the second verse doesn’t get me (“And when I call, you come home/A bird in your teeth”), if the harmonies in the chorus (including a boygenius reunion) don’t get me, if the violins after that chorus don’t get me, if the storm crack doesn’t get me, if the entrance of those horns doesn’t get me, if “a haunted house with a picket fence/to float around and ghost my friends” doesn’t get me, if the collectively accepting “the end is here!” doesn’t get me, if that subsequent loop doesn’t get me, if that first scream doesn’t get me, if the bugging out guitar and metal-esque drum breakdown doesn’t get me, the second chaotic scream from deep in the pit of Phoebe’s soul does. I have screamed my heart out to that ending far too many times this year, probably enough to do genuine damage to my voice, and every single time I’ve needed it. I finish it shaking, drained, in tears, but also strangely centred. Every time, I envision the opening of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, when the Earth is smashed into dust by the titular planet and it’s terrifying and awful yet simultaneously awe-inspiring and beautiful.
Like I said, you just know. You always just know.
We’ve made it to the end! Both of this series and also 2020 as a whole – unless something apocalyptic happens in these final 96 hours, and I wouldn’t put it past the year honestly. Congratulations! Here’s the playlist with all 50 songs in reverse-order cos who starts a properly-ranked Best Songs list with the #1 pick, honestly? Enjoy!