My pre-list State of Music comments are pretty simple this year: 2020 felt like a weak musical year. I don’t know whether to blame that on Covid, me getting older and having to fight changing tastes harder, or that it was just a rough year for good tunes. There are some high quality tracks in this list, but I’m not sure there are many that I will go back to over-and-over in the future. Videos for each song are embedded in the list, with a Spotify playlist of all 22 tracks at the end of this post.
We begin with a couple bonus tracks. These are two 2019 songs that I discovered and fell in love with too late to make last year’s list.
“Fading Out” – Wintersleep
I wish I knew the story on this song. It was released at least three times over the past 18 months in various formats. I don’t know when I first heard it and how I should slot it in. Because of that confusion, I’ll add it as a bonus track. Regardless, another really good entry in the Wintersleep catalog.
“What It Is” – Angel Olsen
I missed this song last year, mostly because I only gave Olsen’s All Mirrors album a single listen and then moved on to other things. Thank goodness some of the DJs at SiriusXM put it into high rotation in the early part of 2020 and I was able to give Olsen’s genius the props it deserves.
20 – “Streelight Blues” – Squirrel Flower
This track perfectly captures that melancholy feeling when something great is about to end. I hear the last night of summer. But it could also be the end of a romance, the end of a period in your life, the death of the American experiment with democracy, or anything really.
19 – “I’ll Be The Death of You” – I Break Horses
I don’t know if this qualifies as an electronic song, but it is certainly electronic-ish, proving if you have the right mix of synths and beats, you can still make your way into my year-end list. I just love the layers this track is built upon. It is epic, mysterious, and sensual.
18 – “Kyoto” – Phoebe Bridgers
So many of Bridgers’ songs are emotionally punishing tracks that leave you drained if you give yourself over to them in full. Yes, there is heaviness in this song – it is Bridgers beating herself up for struggling to relax and enjoy special moments that she has longed for – but there is also a lovely brightness that makes it stand out.
17 – “The Garden” – Briston Maroney
Maroney released his Miracle EP in late 2019, and two songs from it were in contention for the 2020 list. This got the nod since it was released as a single in 2020. I love the unexpected path it takes. It is quirky and jerky and builds to a nice stretch of loud, cathartic noise.
16 – “Berlin” – Fenne Lily
Fenne wrote this about learning to live on her own during a month spent in Berlin. 2020 was a year we all had to learn to be on our own a little more than normal, and this was an ideal summation of that experience.
15 – “Alien With a Sleep Mask On” – Ratboys
A true banger. My first favorite song of the year. Life was much simpler last January.
14 – “Never Destination” – Pearl Jam
Some folks thought PJ’s latest album, Gigaton, was one of the best of their career. While I liked it more than any of their albums since 2006’s Pearl Jam, I wasn’t as all-in as those folks.
But this track crackled with an energy reminiscent of their earliest, best days. It just lacks the brooding darkness of the ’90s that made those songs so special and leaves this one as merely “pretty good.” Which, you know, is still pretty good!
13 – “Sweeter” – Leon Bridges featuring Terrace Martin
The most impactful song of the year. Inspired by the death of George Floyd, Bridges dropped a modern classic that can stand next to songs like “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The big difference, though, is that for all the pain in Sam Cooke’s voice on “Change,” he was sure that the pain would be worth it as better, more just times were ahead. Bridges, on the other hand, insists that while he hopes for a brighter future, reality keeps telling him that is impossible. His disappointment and sadness are devastating.
12 – “Overseas” – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Goddamn, Isbell can write a great song. I don’t always love them; I rarely connect with his more country-tinged tunes. But when he rocks, his music pulls me in so I can appreciate his lyrics. And they always shine.
11 – “Rock & Roll” – Trace Mountains
Take a lot of mid–00’s Belle and Sebastian and add a healthy dose of The War on Drugs, and you get this ripper.
10 – “Noonday Devil” – Cartalk
There was a glut of great new music at the beginning of the year. This fell right in the midst of that, when it looked like 2020 would be a great year for music. And then Covid ruined everything. This is just a lovely, dreamy track that has a strong connection to the alt rock of the mid–1990s.
9 – “Smoke” – Jess Williamson
This fits right in that sweet spot where indie rock meets folk meets country, which, as long as it doesn’t get too twangy, suits my ears just fine.
It also features my favorite couplet of the year:
Every couple months, I like to be bad
Tell me what you want, I’ll put it on my tab
8 – “Pure Shores” – Eliza Shaddad
For years I refused to include covers in my year end lists. I’m sure I had some argument for that policy that seemed reasonable at the time. I dropped that stupid rule a few years back. Thank goodness I came to my senses, because that would have prevented this stunning track by the amazing Shaddad from getting recognized.
I had never heard the original, performed by All Saints for the soundtrack for the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach 20 years ago, but apparently it struck a nerve with Shaddad, who was absolutely giddy to cover it. She covered the hell out of it, too, taking a very New Millennium pop track and shifting it to her distinctive, cinematic sound to make it truly epic.
7 – “Cameo” – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Bear with me here, because I’m going to take a very long streeeetch to connect this with another classic Australian song.
Fran Keaney said he wrote these lyrics one night after failing to connect with a person he was interested in. On his walk home he imagined an alternate reality where things had worked out and they spent their lives together.
Believe it or not, that story makes me think of the Little River Band’s 1978 hit “Reminiscing”. Purely from a thematic standpoint, obviously; they don’t sound anything alike. I’m probably nuts but I like to think that, somehow, LRB was in the back of Keaney’s head on that fateful night, and helped to provide the emotional highpoint for the excellent Sideways to New Italy album.
6 – “Carousels” – Doves
Rare is the band that can step away for a lengthy stretch and then return sounding as strong as ever. Doves pulled off that trick this year. Arriving after an 11-year hiatus, their The Universal Want was one of my favorite albums of the year. And this track captured all that was great about their original sound while throwing in a few new angles.
5 – “Cheap Regrets” – The Districts
Here’s what The Districts singer and guitarist Rob Grote said about this song:
““Cheap Regrets” is some late capitalist nihilism channeled into a Districts dance party. It’s about the extremes of American culture constantly reinforcing the self. The mirror reconfirms you. It’s all iPhone, selfies, and mirrors. Sell yourself baby. The consumer gets consumed. I wanted people to dance together to a song about alienation to find some collective transcendence in that.”
I don’t know about all that, but I do know that this is an absolute JAM. It sounds like it could be from 1982, 1994, 2004, or right now. Baby.
4 – “Ghosts” – Bruce Springsteen
A totally triumphant return by Bruce, his finest song since at least 2002’s “The Rising,” and quite possibly since back to his 1980s prime. It’s classic Bruce: massive, made to be played to the back rows, and filled with showcases for the E. Street Band. Those gorgeous, ringing, open chords are exactly the sound of joy and community we needed this year.
3 – “On the Floor” – Perfume Genius
Michael Hadreas has built a career making painfully honest songs. Songs that despite their critical praise, have never fit my tastes.
Until I heard this incredible track. The swagger and liquid buoyancy that carries it drew me in. And then I heard Hadreas’ voice, which is brimming with the confidence of someone who is sure he has found the love he has been seeking.
Yet that confidence gets broken down and you hear the uncertainty and anguish inherent to a relationship based more on lust than love. A “he loves me, he loves me not,” for the modern era. Or, more correctly, “Should I love him, or should I not love him?”
2 – “Walk in the Woods” – Snarls
Ahh, what’s better than teenage love? Teenage love that is filled with drama, of course!
This song, by a bunch of Columbus kids just barely or not yet 20, bored into my head with its simple honesty and emotion.
When Chlo White shouts “I’M WAITING ONNNNN YOUUUUU, TO MAKE IT WOOOOORTH THE WHILE…” in the final chorus, it sounds the climactic scene of a 1980s teen romance.
1 – “Can’t Do Much” – Waxahatchee
Katie Crutchfield has been making glorious music for years. But it took a toll. After taking a break to get sober, she returned with her strongest collection of music so far, the wonderful Saint Cloud album. It arrived just as the world was shutting down in March, which was perfect timing. Not that it is an album about the end of the world, but rather because it is filled with light and warmth. It served as a counter to all the craziness that was taking over the world as we slipped into quarantine. This song, and Katie’s story, was a reminder that even when things are at their worst, they will eventually get better.