Soundtrack to a Journey Through Hell: Music of 2020 Part 1

Photo by Adrian Korte on Unsplash

Yeah. We all know it. 2020 was rougher than anyone could have imagined and while there have certainly been moments of light and joy, both personally and collectively, it’s starting to feel like the norm. Which is possibly the scariest thing of all. Of all the things affected by the global pandemic, music is one of the most interesting. Some artists released music like it was any other year. Some artists had feverish creative periods due to lockdown (and often wrote their music about these conditions). Some artists are apparently being held hostage by their record labels and can’t release music until touring is possible.

In such a hostile landscape for struggling artists, here’s to hoping that creativity will win out and continue to thrive. This part of the article will feature my lists of Best Songs and Albums of the year, while Part 2 will delve into my most beloved music that did not come out in 2020. Without further ado, here we go:

I have limited this all too short list to one song per artist, but will include some parenthetical additions if the list were longer and not thusly limited. My music tastes have expanded this year, but are still inadequate to capture the full array of beauty and excellence out there in the world.

15. People I’ve Been Sad — Christine and the Queens: I’ve always been a fan of Christine and the Queens, whose contribution to Gone by Charli XCX, one of the best songs of the last decade, is indispensable. Her French-English mixings hit just right for me, as an English and French speaker, and this song hits the emotional register we’ve all been on in 2020. Just let her unique voice and excellent production bring it all home.

14. After Hours — The Weeknd: I’m gonna go on record and say that The Weeknd’s newest album is his best. It’s much more consistent and tighter than any full-length project he’s put out thus far. While the smash hit Blinding Lights, which is also fantastic and more chart-ready, made a lot of other lists, the eponymous track is the best for my money. It sees Abel going for something longer, a little more progressive, than his recent hits without getting mucked down into the static, often boring longer tracks of his early works. Instead, each moment and movement has purpose and interest, which puts this song at the head of The Weeknd’s creative work.

13. Punisher — Phoebe Bridgers: Another eponymous track from a great full-length LP (many more to come), this is just a tad above Kyoto, the Phoebe Bridgers song that made literally every other year-end list. It’s the emotional core of an emotional album, one which lays down a heartfelt tribute to Elliott Smith. With quiet pathos and panache, Bridgers renders the personal so clearly that points of relation abound for the listener.

12. Ode to the Mets — The Strokes: The heroes of Millennial rock fans everywhere have returned after a long hiatus and have done so in style. Teaming up with Rick Rubin, The Strokes managed to deliver us something at once new and quintessentially true to character. This song is my favorite from their latest offering, not only because being a Mets fan is in my blood, but because it gives us the best of the band’s sound, new and old. From Julian Casablancas’s voice laid bare to the full instrumentation it eventually builds to, this one has kept me coming back more than any other. (This one comes in just above At The Door, another emotional, ambitious ballad.)

11. Hello, Chain — Nicolas Jaar: My favorite track off of Jaar’s enigmatic, eclectic group of tracks entitled “Cenizas,” it’s everything I enjoyed about this project condensed into one song. It’s haunting, fragmented, experimental, progressive, and unlike anything else you’ll hear this year, including the rest of Jaar’s impressive and diverse discography.

10. Anthems — Charli XCX: While other singles off Charli’s quarantine, hyperpop record made plenty of lists, I think this one has flown a little bit under the radar. It goes harder than any other song on the album, while also delivering the relatable lyrics and exhilarating production that Charli has been lauded for this year. Infectious, pure and simple.

9. In Your Eyes — Jessie Ware: It’s hard to pick just one song from Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure, which is chock-full of disco, groove, and dance tunes. This one, a dark and dreamy ballad, features not only the excellent instrumentation found on the rest of the album, but the best lyrics, I think. The chorus is just a few short, perfect lines that proves that expressions of romance and desire can still be fresh in pop music.

8. WAP — Cardi B ft. Meghan Thee Stallion: In case you’ve been living under a rock this year, let two of the foremost female figures in hip-hop bring you into the know about the most controversial, vulgar, and excellent popular rap tune of the year. After decades of men rapping about their conquest of female bodies, Cardi and Meghan (and many other formidable female hip-hop artists) have taken the reins. From top to bottom, it’s a breath of fresh air, a banger, an anthem.

7. So.Incredible.pkg — Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats: an excellent offering from a criminally under-discussed EP by two of hip-hop’s rising generation, Denzel and Kenny bring out the best in each other. It’s hip-hop of the highest quality, and nothing more.

6. You’re Too Precious — James Blake: While this song didn’t appear on the EP Blake dropped this year, its quiet beauty charmed me all year long and has remained in fairly consistent rotation since it dropped months ago. An ode to his muse and partner, Jameela Jamil (of The Good Place fame), Blake manages to marry his cutting-edge experiments with sound and structure with accessible, poignant lyrics. It’s the kind of thing that we’ve come to expect from Blake at his highest peaks. (Also stunning is Blake’s cover of Frank Ocean’s Godspeed, which he performed during an Instagram Live performance at the beginning of quarantine and later released on an EP of covers.)

5. Edgelord — Dorian Electra ft. Rebecca Black. Yup, it’s that Rebecca Black, of Friday fame, teaming up with Dorian Electra, one of the rising stars in the PC Music group, to deliver the catchiest, funniest song about incel culture you’ll hear probably ever. Incorporating phrases like “We live in a society” and “Why so serious” into a clever excoriation of internet trolls, their fragile masculinity, misogyny, and victim culture, Edgelord is witty, cheeky, and catchy underneath the abrasive storm of hyperpop sounds delivered here.

4. XS — Rina Sawayama: Catchy, detailed, and vibrant, there’s nothing not to love about this single from Rina Sawayama’s debut album. It takes the extravagance of materialist pop hits (e.g. 7 rings) to task in both sound and lyric. With production from Clarence Clarity (more on him in Part 2), this anti-capitalist bop goes harder than anything that you’ve heard on the radio in a long time. The line “Make me less so I want more,” taking precise aim at the ubiquitous exploitation of women by marketing and consumerism, has stuck in my mind and refuses to leave. Not that I want it to. (Dynasty and Akasaka Sad could easily take this spot.)

3. Daylight — Joji & Diplo: This collaboration caught me off guard, but any worry was quickly swept away once I heard the song. The production is so clean, so crisp, and beautifully compliments Joji’s crooning. Daylight sees Joji taking a step forward vocally and lyrically, from the lowkey, depressed musings of his earlier work, to new, grander heights that give us hope that the best is yet to come from the young artist.

2. Pain Everyday — clipping.: I could swap in almost any song off of Visions of Bodies Being Burned, but Pain Everyday is the one that gave me chills the most times, so it’s the one I’m putting here. I’ll let this blurb from a contributor on do the talking here: “Pain Everyday uses real EVP recordings — said to be the voices of restless spirits — atop a cinematic, Venetian Snares-like breakcore collage, as a call-to-arms for the ghosts of lynching victims to haunt the white descendants of their murderers.” Yup. Incredible lyrics laid down in 7/8 time over the blistering, beautiful, battered beat climax into glistening strings for one of the best listening experiences I’ve had in 2020.

  1. Good News — Mac Miller: There’s everything else on this list and then there’s Good News. This single from Mac Miller’s posthumous album is so entwined with my experience of this year that it could not be dethroned from the top spot. First off, there’s the nature of the song’s release, which was the first thing to come after Mac Miller’s tragic and untimely death in 2018, and which sees Miller going into new musical territory. Secondly, there’s this review of the track that went viral, (later becoming a meme that has remained uncomfortable for me, personally).

I remember watching this review at the start of the year, already familiar with Anthony Fantano’s music reviews via Theneedledrop, but this review caught me off guard, as I think it did many people. Watching this man break down on camera in such a candid, messy fashion left me speechless and made me go back and listen to the song, which I had heard only once or twice at that point, with careful attention to its power to evoke such a response from an experienced, unsentimental listener. That video kicked off a year-long obsession with Mr. Fantano, which prompted me to undertake an ongoing writing project and which has deeply influenced my musical listenings in 2020. Just a couple days ago, Fantano put Good News at the top of his list of songs for the year and I, at risk of seeming obsequious, must agree. What this song has done, become intertwined with my personal history and given voice to an otherwise invisible inner life, is the magic and gift of music. Good News manages to break my heart and soothe it at the same time. I expect it to continue to do so for years to come.

10. Future Nostalgia — Dua Lipa: An excellent pop album from front to back, Future Nostalgia is full of songs that were just off the cusp of making the top 15 songs. Dua Lipa delivers catchy, retro hits without compromising and condescending to the lowest common denominator. There’s little here besides exciting, infectious hits from one of pop music’s rising stars. Flawed as they clearly are, I cannot argue with the Grammy nominations that have fallen at Future Nostalgia’s feet.

9. SAWAYAMA — Rina Sawayama: It’s rare to see an artist burst on the scene with such developed, yet diverse sounds in their arsenal. Rina Sawayama isn’t afraid to freak you out and make you want to dance, often at the same time. She has here curate a group of songs that have wide appeal not through cliche or convention, but through variety. The downside to this approach is that it’s an almost inevitably hit or miss album. While not every song is my favorite, there’s undeniable talent at every turn and its highs are hardly matched by its contenders.

8. UNLOCKED — Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats: As popular as these two are among the younger generations, I really don’t think this project has gotten enough praise or attention this year. Matching each other in energy and ingenuity, Denzel and Kenny are having audible fun here, while also paying homage to the likes of Madlib and Wu Tang Clan, and giving us hope for the future of hip-hop. My only complaint is Unlocked’s brevity and I wait with great anticipation for their next collaboration.

7. how i’m feeling now — Charli XCX: A direct response to having to quarantine during the global pandemic that took over the world in 2020, Charli XCX returned just a year after her stunning LP Charli, with a lean helping of the same ambition and energy that has put Charli XCX at the forefront of the hyperpop movement. Without the refined sheen of past releases, as is appropriate from a quarantine-era project, Charli hits with relatable yet experimental bangers about being stuck inside, missing going out with her friends, and all of the other comforts of normal life we didn’t know we would miss this year. Even the weakest track of the bunch should intimidate fellow pop stars.

6. What’s Your Pleasure — Jessie Ware: The only thing holding this album back from a higher spot on this list is time, I think. My discovery of What’s Your Pleasure’s bounty of musical wealth has been a bit late in the year, I’m afraid, to let it my opinion of it build even further. That being said, Jessie Ware, whom I had never heard before 2020, has unleashed the full power of disco with this album, with track after track of glittering, gorgeous grooves. Without the cash-grab stink of other recent 70’s and 80’s nostalgia products in pop culture, What’s Your Pleasure is somehow anachronistic despite being in a genre that is so heavily weighed down with association to past eras. That’s the power of good music: the ability to transcend a genre or a moment and exist in its own sphere. There’s plenty of that here.

5. Run The Jewels 4 — Run The Jewels: Killer Mike and El-P have continued to be one of the most exciting and productive forces in rap music, giving us yet another edition of their signature product. They have proved that refinement of a style can be equally as satisfying as innovation or discovery. Above all else, RTJ4 was emblematic of the groundswell of Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest that erupted in the wake of numerous lives being lost to a system of brutality and disregard for black lives. The power of their music comes not only from the excellent production and rhymes they have continued to put out, but the way in which they tap into the pulse of a nation.

4. My Agenda — Dorian Electra: The most bizarre, exciting, and hilarious concept album from one of music’s most daring new artists, Dorian Electra dives into incel culture with flair. Similar to Charli XCX’s how i’m feeling now, My Agenda is short and rough around the edges. While it may not top their superb debut album, Dorian has given us so much to enjoy with this freaky, grotesque, thrilling project.

3. Cenizas — Nicolas Jaar: While his release under the moniker Against All Logic has garnered plenty of praise this year, I found myself coming back to this quieter, more enigmatic record that Nicolas Jaar dropped this year. Filled with haunting, ambient cuts, there’s so much atmosphere to get lost in on Cenizas. For me, it was the perfect accompaniment to the endless dark haze that was this year. While it may prove a little to out there for some, I don’t find this album inaccessible or too obscure. What it offers is always on the surface of its feeling.

2. Circles — Mac Miller: Back in January, which feels like a whole lifetime ago, this album was bursting with the sad beauty of an artist who was taken too soon. Now, it feels like friendly companion, a source of commiseration over the year we’ve all had. Mac’s transition to more singer-songwriter territory is an opportunity for the late MC/producer to flex his robust musical muscles. The casual fan might not know it, but Mac was a gifted multi-instrumentalist and those talents are on full display here. Even more visible, though, is the artist’s tender, vibrant soul. It’s a heartbreakingly perfect tribute to his memory that somehow feels more personal and relatable today than it did eleven months ago. We all owe Jon Brion, who has done incredible work in finishing the album, a big thank you.

  1. Visions of Bodies Being Burned — clipping.: There is plenty of musical and artistic ambition on this list, but perhaps none more than is found in the latest project from the avant-garde rap group clipping. Led by the ever-fearsome and fierce rapping of Daveed Diggs, clipping. continues to push boundaries of sound design and storytelling with this follow-up to their 2019 album, There Existed An Addiction To Blood. These two projects stand shoulder to shoulder, blazing their own trail in the depiction of Black American life qua horror film behind abrasive and innovative electronic production. Haunting, thrilling, challenging, complex, and utterly enjoyable, there is nothing else like what clipping. has done here (besides their LP from last year) and no one whose achievement in music this year stands this tall.

“Sometimes I like things and I write them down.” - Daniel Sloss Twitter: @js_perkins

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