The Top Ten Worst and Best Hits of 2020

Full disclosure: the late start on Listmas and then the long gap between this year’s deep diving posts wasn’t because of last time’s piece. It’s because I’ve dragged my feet for two three months getting to this one.

There are multiple reasons for this. For one, keeping up with the Billboard horserace last year felt sillier than ever. Amidst everything else going on–pandemic updates, racial justice upheaval, CNN alerts when a tenth of a percentage point in an Iowan county might shift, and any personal crises that came along or were exacerbated by all of the above–nothing felt goofier than going, “Huh, I wonder if this is the week ‘Levitating’ cracks the top ten.” And even when you did manage to tear yourself away to the charts, there were times where eyeing the Hot 100 felt emphatically not goofy. Not that you’d know anything was up by listening to “Say So” or “Savage”, but in hindsight, the race between the two last spring was a competition between one song with an emerging problematic artist and her post-cancellation producer, and another song whose lead artist was later shot by another artist in the same year. That’s the kind of heat 2020 had.

Another thing, too, is that pop music never really figured itself out last year. We had a mix of songs that refused to ever go away (see: “Blinding Lights,” “Don’t Start Now”), and a bunch of number ones that disappeared on impact; there’s a one hit wonder, and then there’s a song like the Travis Scott featuring Young Thug and M.I.A. joint “Franchise” that only exists for the next 30 seconds because I just reminded you it ever existed at all. Against those two extremes, 2020 was the year we dove into what TikTok could mean for pop. For instance, this song by the young man with the D-1 point guard haircut is called “Blueberry Faygo.” It and a slew of songs like it–chirpy numbers that are more rap than not, but get most of their sauce from a melodic hook and dreamy instrumental flourishes–blew up because of kinda flailing if memorable enough dances on the video app, with “Blueberry Faygo” getting big enough to place at #27 on the year-ender. For the record, that’s 40 places above *checks notes* Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” and infinitely above anything Taylor Swift released, or any singles from an Ariana Grande album cycle. 

But the reason I dragged my feet on this list specifically is that I…had trouble getting my bearings on this one. Even though the year involved more headphones than concerts, I could still find true north on my favorite albums and songs for 2020, because the way I engage with Gorillaz or Yves Tumor didn’t fundamentally change. The same can’t be said for pop music, where so much of the draw is communal; it’s kind of hard to assess “The Woo” without hearing it through bar speakers as someone asks “Is that 50 Cent?” or if people at a club would actually go for “Tootsie Slide.” I got there eventually, and I stand by this year’s offering as much as any I’ve done, but it was a much longer road here for sure.

And, in the interest of navigating that distance, we’re going to do an abbreviated best/worst here. This list follows the same rules as always (had to peak in 2020 [mostly], no repeats from my picks in years past, limited to the year-end Hot 100) with the added rule that “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is automatically DQ’d since the math suggests we’re just going to live with it every year now. While this list is less blurb-heavy than I’d usually go, everything would appear here and in the same order as usual. Let’s begin with the worst hits and a few dishonorable mentions:

On the bubble:
Drake – “Tootsie Slide”
Luke Combs – “Lovin’ On You”
Kane Brown ft. Swae Lee and Khalid – “Be Like That”
Gabby Barrett ft. Charlie Puth – “I Hope”

Dishonorable Mention: 24kGoldn ft. iann dior – “Mood” (#47)
An incessantly annoying song that would have missed the cut entirely if not for the lyric “We play games of love to avoid the depression”

10. Lewis Capaldi – “Before You Go” (#21)
It’s just not as deep as it thinks it is, and Capaldi’s voice sounds like a tension headache. Weirdly has the opposite problem of “Someone You Loved:” that song tried to sound transcendent over a fairly routine experience, while “Before You Go” feels underthought for its subject matter of a friend’s suicide.

9. Maroon 5 – “Memories” (#8)
I almost left “Memories” off the list because, hey, Maroon 5 turning in imitation brand Post Malone is like trying if you squint at it, but the mawkishness and pervasiveness of the crowd noise here is too grating.

8. JP Saxe ft. Julia Michaels – “If the World Was Ending” (#56)
“If the World Was Ending” is an uninteresting song in uninteresting ways–just a soggy, twee ballad whose drama is unearned to the point of being laughable. It’s honestly a chore to listen through. Next.

7. Harry Styles – “Watermelon Sugar” (#20)
This song sounds like waiting in line at CVS. It’s baffling that someone as generally affable and dynamic as Styles would fire off a single as tremendously repetitive and fucking boring as “Watermelon Sugar.”

6. Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani – “Nobody by You” (#52)
How does a real life couple that’s been together for years have all the chemistry of two noble gases?

5. Justin Bieber – “Yummy” (#58)
I feel like this would have been a bigger story if pop music occupied more space in the public conscious last year, but Justin Bieber’s 2020 output was fucking awful. He’s routinely sucked before, but at least he could broken clock his way into a “Sorry” or “Cold Water.” Miserable dreck like “Yummy” is awful even before you get to the part were he sings about wanting his wife to make his toes curl.

4. Jack Harlow ft. DaBaby, Tory Lanez, and Lil Wayne – “WHAT’S POPPIN” (#13)
A pair of just fine performances from DaBaby and Lil Wayne are what hold “WHAT’S POPPIN” from climbing even higher on the list thanks to how flatly unlikable Harlow and Lanez are here. Harlow goes word for word bar for bar aping Post Malone’s whole thing from “White Iverson” without any of the charm (who the hell thinks a New Balance deal is a flex?) while Lanez confuses a choppy monotone for going hard. Between those two and a dull beat, there’s nothing to hold onto here.

3. Justin Bieber ft. Quavo – “Intentions” (#17)
“Intentions” actually sounds better than “Yummy,” however:

“Heart full of equity, you’re an asset”
“Picture perfect you don’t need no filter”
“Shoutout your mom and dad for makin’ you”
“Triple threat, you a boss, you a bae, you a beast”
“Don’t need a sponsor, nope, you’re the brand now”
“You’re my rock, my Colorado”

2. Blackbear – “hot girl bummer” (#26)
In the annals of shitty pop, there are songs like “Intentions” that are awful because they’re too insipid and clunky to do much else, and then there’s your actually noxious stuff like “hot girl bummer.” Last time he was here, Blackbear was ripping off “do rei me,” and now he’s upped the ante by jacking someone else’s viral phrase for his own bullshit. Obviously, “hot girl bummer” wasn’t recorded during the pandemic, but as a backdrop (the song peaked in the true “other shit is going on, who gives a fuck?” era of late March of last year), it underlines how full of shit Blackbear’s boilerplate LA partying lyrics are. “Hot girl bummer” is the sound of “welcome to my twisted mind” if that twisted mind’s only two thoughts were “fucking bitches, man” and “i’m so sad. Of course her friends hate you. Everybody hates you. She hates you.

1. Jawsh 685 and Jason “Rumtugtugger” DeRulo – “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat” (#35)
This song shouldn’t exist.

Literally, Jason Derulo took this song to release while still working with Jawsh 685 behind the scenes to clear up the rights issue because the spine of “Savage Love,” is, like so many Jason DeRulo hits, a wholesale lift of a sample grafted onto absolutely shitbird nothing of a song. The two of them got things worked out, and a BTS remix bumped “Savage Love” to number 1 for a week, but at no point has this ever sounded like a completed song. Instead, “Savage Love” has the worst possible combination of sounding both grating and undercooked: that hook just clubs you over the head, the pre-chorus sticks out like a sore thumb, the bridge is a vocalized mess, and all of it is sloppy enough that you notice these things. And it’s not that DeRulo is incapable of decent vocals, but this sounds slapped together. I’m not saying every song big off the Tok is bad (I couldn’t find list space for it, but I mentioned “Blueberry Faygo” up top for a reason), but a lead-from-behind cash-in effort to capitalize on TikTok virality like “Savage Love” is a fitting worst hit for 2020.

And now, for a switch-up to the best hits. Here’s what I got the most into from last year.

On the bubble:
Jhene Aiko – “PU$$Y Fairy (OTW)”
Selena Gomez – “Lose You to Love Me”
Surfaces – “Sunday Best”
Surf Mesa ft. Emilee – “ily”

Honorable Mention: The Weeknd – “Heartless” (#28)
It technically peaked in 2019, so I couldn’t justify putting it any higher on the list, but Metro went lights out on this beat. The stretch from about 0:47 to 1:47 is probably my most listened-to minute of pop for 2020.

10. Billie Eilish – “everything i wanted” (#18)
Another one with a delicately crafted beat, and Eilish’s vocals are great. The quieter, more constructed thump of “everything i wanted” feels like a welcome reprieve after WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP…and knowing how much sad girl Spotify-core is out there, I respect the degree of difficulty in making a song like this memorable.

9. BTS – “Dynamite” (#38)
“Dynamite” is just a sturdily constructed pop song that’s readily sing-alongable and has time for a key change, and sometimes that’s all you really need. As our pop drifts closer to abstraction, wedding jams in the making like “Dynamite” are only going to burn brighter.

8. SAINt JHN ft. Imanbek – “Roses – Imanbek Remix” (#19)

7. Megan Thee Stallion ft. Beyonce – “Savage (Remix)” (#15)
The “Savage” remix is the rare remix that only exists to put the original song over the popularity edge that actually improves upon the OG release. Megan crackles with the triumph that comes with getting Beyonce to feature on your track, and Bey herself is no slouch here; I’ve seen her appearance on the “Savage” remix called her best effort since Lemonade, and I’m inclined to agree. You can’t hear the hook without her ab-libs after you’ve spun this remix.

6. Benee ft. Gus Dapperton – “Supalonely” (#84)
Same sort of argument I made for “Dynamite” applies here, but we’re praising a slick bassline and strings instead of a key change. Trust me, there’s hours of pastel lo-fi YouTube detritus out there that doesn’t do what “Supalonely” does nearly as well or as memorably, the actual groove and bounce here are impeccable.

5. Harry Styles – “Adore You” (#6)
Shouthout Harry Styles for doing the same year worst/best doubleheader. A song that falls a little short of Taylor Swift’s “Style” but a head above 5 Seconds of Summer’s “Youngblood” in the “sweaty, New Wave-tinged sex jam” hierarchy, “Adore You” feels like a rare “a-ha” moment for Styles, where everything he wants to be connects with what he is. 

4. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion – “WAP” (#24)
“WAP” succeeds on a bunch of levels as a high profile rap collab, an execution of clever sampling and speaker-destroying bass, and [extremely music writer trying to sound relevant voice] an empowerment anthem for an underserved base coming from our most necessary voices. It’s also just really fuckin’ funny. Cardi and Megan talk great rap shit on “WAP” with cartoonishly over the top lines like “Pussy A1, just like his credit” and Megan gleefully rapping about switching her wig so her dude feels like he’s cheating. Having a boxing bell punctuate “Never lost a fight but I’m looking for a beating” feels like some shit Ludacris would have done in the early ‘00s. I love it.

3. Juice WRLD – “Wishing Well” (#92)
“Wishing Well” is absolutely gutting. This ballad from Juice WRLD’s posthumous release is impossible to separate from his untimely death and overdose (“Let’s be real, if it wasn’t for the pills I wouldn’t be here/but if I keep taking these pills, I won’t be here/I just told y’all my secret/It’s tearing me to pieces” hits like a truck), and Juice sells the hell out of every single word. This is one I hadn’t heard before putting the list together; it hits me like a truck every time.

2. Lady Gaga ft. Ariana Grande – “Rain On Me” (#48)
I mentioned this when I wrote about Chromatica, but I don’t think any pop album got screwed by COVID like this one, because I hear this song and just imagine it soaring in a public setting. The beat is dramatic in all the right ways for a pair of pop theater kids like Gaga and Grande (I mean, look at this), and while the song’s message is as old as “I Will Survive,” it sounds hard-earned in their hands. Grande tends to be stiff in her collaborations, but her and Gaga have chemistry born from really becoming close during recording, and you can feel that shine through for “Rain On Me.” I hope this one makes the rounds once public parties are safer.

1. The Weeknd – “Blinding Lights” (#1)
I could make any number of arguments for “Blinding Lights,” so I’m going to make two quick ones. The first is that it reminds me of Billie Eilish’s “bad guy” in that it sounds from the first listen like it’s a song that should have always existed. The second is that I am writing this 472 days after it came out, and I’m still somehow not sick of this song. It’s that good.

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Notes on a Conditional 2020

Whew, that was a gap. Hey everyone, we’re back with the third day of Listmas 2020 coverage! Today is this year’s version of a piece I ran in 2018, where I ran through a bunch of the year’s albums that I heard but didn’t make my favorites. I liked a lot of these, and didn’t like some others. Check it out, starting with a mandatory pick.

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Has there been such an early and uniformly consensus Album of the Year since Merriweather Post Pavilion as Fetch the Bolt Cutters? I thought when list seasons started, maybe we were in for a walk back of its April hype (an absurd 98 on Metacritic), but we doubled down instead. You could probably call FtBC a chore, and it kind of is to an extent: it’s a piano-driven, classicist singer-songwriter album prone to its artist’s tics and yips that exists so wholly for itself that it’s a little exhausting. From an artist with less cachet than Apple, it’d probably get dinged for being indulgent or award bait. But the core and composition of FtBC is so strong (seriously, I went months without listening to it and still remembered every song like I’d just hit play the week before) that it’s the rare heralded work that’s Actually That Good.

Machine Gun Kelly – Tickets to My Downfall
Look, no 2020 album was going to benefit more from the soft bigotry of low expectations than “Machine Gun Kelly’s pop punk record.” A full-length Warped Tour throwback from the white guy rapper who is most famous for that time he picked a beef with old man Eminem is such an on paper bad idea that Tickets to My Downfall would be an unmitigated success if it was halfway listenable, and, luckily for Kelly, that’s just where it lands. Kelly and his ensemble–most prominently including co-producer and co-writer Travis Barker who, natch, also drums all over this thing–made a record that’s great at convincing you it came out in 2003, but would sit gathering dust in your cd binder. Barker’s presence adds a steady hand and legitimacy, but he’s also “just” blink-182’s drummer in this context; is there anything here that wouldn’t benefit from the person who wrote, say, “What’s My Age Again?” tightening the screws? Probably not. Like I said, TtMD passed the eye test with most people (tellingly, its only hostile review is from the pop-punk lifers at SputnikMusic who, for want of a better phrase, know better), but it’s more gratifying as a thought experiment than a listen. 

Future – High Off Life
Future’s gotten really good at making albums I’ll listen to for a week and think, “Hey, this is alright” before never touching them again. The album cover rules, though.

Image result for high off life

Megan Thee Stallion – Good News
It’s real good! Megan stuffs Tory Lanez in a locker during opener “Shots Fired,” and proceeds to spend most of the rest of the album just enjoying herself. Good News doesn’t have the album development focus of, say, Megan’s “WAP” partner in crime Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, but it’s still tighter and brisker than the average rap album designed to live in the top 20 off streams alone (see above), and Megan’s features with City Girls and SZA take off like a rocket. It works best as a collection of songs with Megan in head-down-and-rap mode, and by seldom deviating from that (synth pop experiment “Don’t Rock Me to Sleep” is the epitome of a Skip track), it’s endlessly listenable and more cohesive than whatever “Megan Thee Stallion Essentials” playlist a streaming company would cook up.

Justin Bieber – Changes
On a related note: you know how most streaming services have a loathsome “continue playing radio” or “infinite” setting where they’ll throw on disparate not-quite matches after the album/playlist you were listening to, and you normally turn it off after 2 songs? Everything on Changes could be the 4th song on that.

Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
It’s funny, Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker went from making an album that worked best as a bunch of singles to an album made to be listened to from end to end. The Slow Rush wasn’t an easy write by Parker’s telling, and you can hear belabored creation in how fussed over it sounds at times, but that same fastidiousness allows for moments like the midsong switch up on “Posthumous Forgiveness” or the many shapes of “Breathe Deeper.” Some longtime Tame fans feel like Parker’s lost his way from the band’s shaggier psych-rock beginnings, but to me, this sounds like a winning combo of the more studio-driven fare of Currents and spaced out jams of Lonerism and InnerSpeaker, and one I’d give my left arm to hear on the dancefloor.

Lady Gaga – Chromatica
SPEAKING OF, I’d argue no album got screwed by COVID like Chromatica. Lady Gaga’s return to maximalist pop music after 2016’s Joanne and approximately 8,000 public performances of “Shallow” seemed like a deliberate attempt to recapture her “everywhere” status, and well, you can’t be everywhere if you can’t go anywhere. Chromatica is simply music designed to come from the largest speakers possible while you’re pressed against a bunch of people, and it was hard to get into that in 2020. The highlights are great even on headphones, but Gaga’s return to form has the faint air of conservatism around it; yes, it does Gaga-goes-90s-house camp impeccably, but it’s the first Gaga album where you could successfully argue her creative world has shrunk instead of expanded. But, if that’s the price to pay to make one of our oddest pop artists sound capable again, it’s an even trade.

Image result for chromatica

Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake
This album works better when you look at it as three EPs strung together of furious rapping, some pop-rap cuts, and then a vibe-y part 3, but Uzi’s ability to hold Eternal Atake together largely without features or a splashy single is legitimately impressive. I didn’t realize I’d listened to this basically all year until I looked back.

Taylor Swift – folklore + evermore
Review forthcoming.

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Gonna be honest: I do not get it. It’s not that Future Nostalgia’s bad by any stretch, but I straight up do not get how this much praise got slapped on an album that tops out at “it’s fine.” I see the concept here: Dua Lipa’s pulling from the warm, glitzy, groovy sounds of pop from disco to the earliest parts of New Wave (aha, there’s “nostalgia”), but with modern kick and sheen (ooh, there’s “future”), and the result is often pleasant enough. But Future Nostalgia fails to be noteworthy in any direction; there’s no persona to latch onto because Dua Lipa is proficient if uncompelling as a presence, the “old fused with new” angle isn’t fresh to anyone who’s ever heard “Get Lucky” or “Uptown Funk” at a wedding, and aside from “Physical” and maybe “Don’t Start Now,” the album doesn’t go for the pop music jugular often enough to work as an empty calorie thrill. The thing with having eyes equally on the future and in nostalgia is that it makes your present inert.

The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form
A solid bounce back from the British sad boys. Following A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships and its mishmash of powerhouse singles and underwhelming album cuts, Notes On a Conditional Form is better-flowing and throughout as a whole. It’s a mammoth record (it uses every one of the 80 minutes you can fit on a CD), but one that has room for the quieter, UK garage electronic sounds of “Frail State of Mind” and “I Think There’s Something You Should Know” on top of the horned and horny 80’s jam “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” or gleeful mix-CD rock of “Me & You Together Song.” Plus, at a time where rock and rock-adjacent music can be a little too tasteful for its own good (as Tame above, so HAIM below), I appreciate a big time rock act that puts a lovely but non-essential instrumental song on their album, aka, the first thing that’d get cut if you’re making the album into a playlist, and call it “Streaming,” or has their first single be a discordant screamer that includes the all-caps lyric “WELL/MY GENERATION WANNA/FUCK BARACK OBAMA/LIVING IN A SAUNA/WITH LEGAL MARIJUANA.” You just have to appreciate the willingness to go for it.

Image result for notes on a conditional form

HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III
HAIM figured something out on album three. You could see what they were doing on Days Are Gone and Something to Tell You, but both of those albums felt a little hollow and beholden to their influences (and the HAIM sisters’ status as rock music influencers–they feel like the millennial answer to Dave Grohl’s willingness to show up anywhere as an archetypal rocker). Okay, and Something to Tell You flatout wasn’t good. But Women In Music Pt. III works because the studio craft feels more natural and less gimmicky, and the album captures some of the band’s live music alchemy that was wholly missing on their earlier records. It’s a fuzzier, slightly odder album and all the better for it; “The Steps” might be my favorite song they’ve ever done, and “3 AM” integrates R&B flourishes with more polish than I previously thought possible. A great “throw it on” listen of an album.

Best Coast – Always Tomorrow
You’ve gotta feel for artists who dropped projects late last February and then had to play out the promotional string while the world turned to ash around them; can you imagine seeing everything slide into “this coronavirus thing may not be a joke” territory while still having to tweet about your performance on Jimmy Fallon? It’s a shame for Best Coast especially, because Always Tomorrow affirms their status as a reliable pop rock hook factory some 10 years after Crazy For You while being their “I have therapy and skincare now instead of booze and weed” record, and making an enjoyable a straight ahead pop rock album and a Sobriety Album both have a higher degree of difficulty than you’d expect. Always Tomorrow is a tuneful, bright listen whose instrumental clarity doesn’t sacrifice any punch, and I think it might be their most end-to-end rewarding album. For a band that could have gone up in a puff of weed smoke at any point between 2009 and now, things have turned out pretty okay.

Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able
A solo album by the perennially underrated MC of the legendary Roots crew has been teased for a decade, and coveted for even longer. Black Thought brings the fire and technique that you’d expect, and, after listening to Roots’ albums get steadily more abstract over the 10’s before they stopped coming entirely, it’s just a treat to hear one of the most dexterous and writely rappers in the game cook and trade verses with guests like Schoolboy Q, Killer Mike, and Pusha T (with Portugal. The Man making a surprising number of guest appearances). This probably would have been my gym record of 2020.

Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon III: The Chosen
It’s a shame that Cudi’s release date got annihilated by evermore, because MOTMIII is an encouraging return! And I’m not just saying that because I once tried to will myself through Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven! Admittedly, the album’s opening stretch exists for playlist placement, but it’s at least something to hear someone with a knack for texture like Cudi make sorta interesting Travis Scott songs if Travis Scott isn’t going to (it’s also a neat reverberation to hear Cudi absorb some of Scott’s techniques when Scott feels like a direct aesthetic descendent of his), and from “Mr. Solo Dolo III” onward, there’s a locked in, vintage Cudi feel to the whole thing. I was in college in 2009 and nowadays I’m prone to falling down slow + reverb YouTube rabbit holes, so I am this album’s exact target audience, but still, it;s worth checking out.

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Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
Is there anyone better suited to a quarantine album than Charli? Her best projects have the air of tossed-off spontaneity, so of course a DIY record with a six-week deadline was going to be where she flourished. Amidst how i’m feeling now’s frantic nature, there are moments of sweetness that really let it soar (“7 years,” “party 4 u”), and something like “anthems” does an incredible job exaggerating its own pop music-y fakeness while still longing for being in a club pressed up against people. We’re still far from the end of quarantine-core “I made this on my own” projects, but I’m doubtful any of them are going to capture the mania and cacophony of everything like how i’m feeling now.

Katy Perry – Smile
I didn’t listen to this album, and neither did you.

We still have one bit of Listmas left, let’s aim for sooner rather than ah, late April. See you then!

Listmas 2020
Ranting About Music’s Top Ten Favorite Albums for 2020
Fifty Favorite Songs of 2020–The Gibby Fifty

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Fifty Favorite Songs of 2020–The Gibby Fifty

Hello all and Happy New Year! We’re back with part 2 of our Listmas 2020 coverage for my 50 favorite songs of 2020. As much as this was a good music year, it also soared on a song-by-song basis, and each of these is a treat. There’s a Spotify list at the bottom to throw off and/or validate your algorithm.

Andy Shauf – “Try Again”
Bartees – “Boomer” Bartees describes this as a pop-punker that leads with a DaBaby verse. Bartees rules.
beabadoobee – “Further Away”
Bedtime Khal – “Black Tears”
Best Coast – “Everything Has Changed”
Best Ex – “Lemons” I’m a sucker for songs that zigzag between taking the high road and saying “fuck it”
Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am”
Bully – “Add It On”
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Summer Love”
Charli XCX – “Anthems”
Chloe x Halle – “Do It” Probably my biggest “How was this not a hit?” of the year
Chris Farren – “Phantom Friend”
Disclosure feat. slowthai – “My High”
Dogleg – “Headfirst”
Dua Lipa – “Physical”
Empty Country – “Clearing” That swooping falsetto on the chorus is incredible
Eric Slick – “Over It”
Fiona Apple – “Shameika”
Gorillaz feat. St. Vincent – “Chalk Tablet Towers”
Grimes – “4AEM”
Half Waif – “Siren” I dunno if I’ll have space to write about it elsewhere, so: the Half Waif album was very good last year
I Love Your Lifestyle – “Shilly-Shally” I kept forgetting to check this record but this song is great!
Into It. Over It. – “Courtesy Greetings”
Jeff Rosenstock – “***BNB”
Kali Uchis – “telepatia”
Kid Cudi – “The Void” Man, I feel for Cudi; his release date was all set to be his and then evemore got announced to drop the same day
Kitty – “Afterglow”
Lady Gaga feat. BLACKPINK – “Sour Candy”
Lil Uzi Vert – “Homecoming”
Megan Thee Stallion feat. SZA – “Freaky Girls” Although “Shots Fired” was a close second
Nick Lutsko – “Unleash Your Spirit” Not on Spotify
Nine Inch Nails – “Together”
Phoebe Bridgers – “Chinese Satellite”
Pinkshift – “i’m gonna tell my therapist on you” This might have been my song of the year
Quinton Brock – “To the Moon” Quiton Brock’s ready to change rock music
Record Setter – “An Explanation”
Ricky Eat Acid – “smoking a cigarette or is it weed”
Rina Sawayama – “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” Probably my favorite vocal performance of the year
Run the Jewels feat. 2 Chainz- “out of sight”
Serena Isioma – “Stop Calling the Police on Me”
Snarls – “Burst”
Soccer Mommy – “yellow is the color of her eyes” This was gonna be “Circle the Drain” until I heard this one in the right frame of mind the other night
Tame Impala – “Lost In Yesterday”
Taylor Swift – “mirrorball”
The 1975 – “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”
The Weeknd – “After Hours” I just love the skittering beat of this one
Touche Amore – “Reminders”
Ty Dolla $ign feat. Kid Cudi – “Temptations”
Vritra – “WHAT’S THAT”
Yves Tumor – “Medicine Burn” A true “buckle the fuck up” moment

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Ranting About Music’s Top Ten Favorite Albums for 2020

Staying power.

Of all the challenges that music released this year faced, none was greater than trying to hold the line against polling data, constantly shifting virus updates, protests, anguish, and the general restlessness that characterized most of 2020. Music had to do this with one hand tied behind its back, too, since festival circuits, tours, and most late night TV performances were out, and grainy, glitchy at-home livestreams were in. 

All of this was, very understandably, an uphill road! When I sat down to tally up everything for Listmas, I came across what felt like a record number of “Fuck, that was this year?” albums. Did you remember that Pearl Jam put out an album in 2020? Because I straight up forgot. I feel bad that a bunch of stuff came and went this year because on the whole, 2020 was a pretty solid year for albums. And while we’re almost certainly down some records that are holding out for next year, music on the whole saw less disruption than TV or movies (go watch Soul), and the emphasis on at home/headphone listening meant that this year albums had a chance to get personable. So here’s my list. As always, the usual caveat that these are my favorites and not strictly speaking bests (y’all have probably already seen enough lists with a Fiona Apple, Waxahatchee, Run the Jewels, HAIM, and Phoebe Bridgers top 5), so let’s begin.

15. Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts V: Together
14. Best Ex – Good At Being Bad
13. Ricky Eat Acid – when they align just so, memories of another life bleed into my own
12. Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers
11. Vritra – SONAR

10. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Yes, I just alluded to this album showing up on everyone’s list and here it is kicking off mine. That’s just how it sometimes goes. To be honest, I was a latecomer with Punisher: the album dropped in March, but I didn’t start listening to it until October. A singer-songwriter album with attention to texture and detail like this is perfect hoodie season Sad Bastard music, although the vaguely apocalyptic, morose reflections of Punisher could have fit any part of the year. What keeps me coming back to Punisher is the second half, where things snap into clearer focus from “Chinese Satellite” onward (that said, “Kyoto” is a near perfect single). It’s that stretch and the big-swing finish of “I Know The End” that not just make me really dig Punisher, but curious about where Bridgers gets up to next; the possibilities feel as endless as that starry sky on the cover.

9. Snarls – Burst
One near positive of this spring was that I was suddenly spending a lot more time at parks, and what better soundtrack for walks in the woods than an album that literally opens with a song called “Walk in the Woods”? A Columbus band signed to the reliably great Take This to Heart Records label, Snarls live in the alternative/indie/emo/pop crosspollenation lane that rewards bands who have not just songs, but something special going for them. Burst isn’t short on songs (the crunch of “Hair,” “What’s It Take” and its delightful R.E.M. verve, how “Better Off” turns the wistfulness up to 11 is a great midalbum run, and “Falling” + “Burst” are a great closing 1-2) by any stretch, and yet its Chlo White and Riley Hall’s vocals and their interplay that let the album really soar, and kept it in my rotation once it got too hot and then too cold to go to the parks. I’ve heard so many bands try and miss making a record like this that balances sound, songcraft, and heft, but Burst is the whole thing in a pastoral package, check it out.

8. The Weeknd – After Hours
I didn’t think The Weeknd had this in him. Abel Tesfaye’s pop turn generated a stable of hits I really like with the unfortunate side effect of detritus-laden and therefore kind of middling albums, and the return to sadness Selena-and-I-broke-up My Dear Melancholy didn’t inspire much confidence. After Hours course corrects on a few levels: it’s shorter, it’s more thematically cohesive, the melodies and production are great, and the hits-to-album-cuts disparity is much lower; hell, half of AF sounds like it wants to be The Single. And, I promise I won’t make every one of these entries about the pandemic, but After Hours took a surprising turn in the early days of shutdown. An album of cavernous synths, hollowed out New Wave, and reverberating pop and R&B was actually kind of a perfectly eerie listen while peering through the windows into closed up bars, unlit clubs, and empty party-area streets, and a song like “After Hours,” that’s all about isolation from the person you want next to you, I mean, it’s all right there. It turns out that neon-drenched psycho psychadelia is a great look for The Weeknd.

7. Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
A great music year in general, 2020 was also a stupid-great year for the ipod-core class of artists. The Strokes, The Killers, Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, and Fleet Foxes all release well-received albums, but Gorillaz’ new er, thing, was my favorite of the bunch. The key appeal to Strange Timez, for me, is that it’s Gorillaz being inventive and confident again, like Damon Albarn and co. got their mojo back after a pair of underwhelming albums. Humanz in 2017 was heavy on guests, but it felt like everyone forgot to write songs for it, and while I still think the following year’s The Now Now is real enjoyable, it lacked the band’s signature ambition and could be detrimentally low stakes. Strange Timez takes the best of both: the collaboration-driven and ambitious nature of Humanz with the song quality of The Now Now for the most compulsively listenable music Gorillaz have done this side of Plastic Beach. I can’t wait for Season two.

6. Record Setter – I Owe You Nothing
There’s a lot on this list that errs toward being accessible or pleasing. This aint that. I Owe You Nothing is a confrontational screamo record where you will be very in or out within the first 20 or so seconds. If you have to bail, I get it, but please, if you’re up for heavier or more abrasive stuff, check this out. The riffs and hooks are there, and Record Setter’s ability to turn on a dime is impeccable. So, too, is the song order and production; no album has made me miss live shows this year the way hearing how “Someplace” leaps right into “Sometimes” has, and I yearn to hear how the slowburn of “An Impression” sounds while being played in the room. This is probably the most recent album on this list to drop, and a late fall/winter release here makes sense: a record of tribulation and dysphoria like this is some real dark night of the soul shit, but there’s also a will to live and thrive here that’s commendable. 

5. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA was the pop album I needed this year.

SAWAYAMA exists as almost my platonic ideal of pop music: kitchen sink sonic variety (the opener sounds like Evanescence or Lacuna Coil going top 40, but we’ve also got room for spacey dream pop interludes, ‘00s pop R&B, New Jack Swing, nu-metal, and ‘80s rock), personable lyrics, big vocal performances (“Who’s Gonna Save U Now?”), and an overabundance of pummeling hooks. SAWAYAMA scratches the pop itch on both sides: it hits your pleasure centers like a mainstream pop record, and like an underground/indie pop album, it’s eager to show its smarts; however, it lacks mainstream pop’s slavish attention to brand management, nor does it fall victim to most alt. pop’s tendency to murk up the hooks or add noise in the name of “being interesting.” It’s just focused on making impossibly catchy music like…well, I was going to do a list of highlights, and then I realized I was going to name just about every song. And it tends to hit meaningfully, too; themes of family, identity, and confidence come into play throughout without ever overtaxing the music. It’s just aces on every level.

4. Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM
It’s impossible to say this without wanting to give myself a swirlie, but damn near nobody is as great at writing to the moment like punk rock lifer Jeff Rosenstock. Released in late May without warning, NO DREAM gets its name from the idea that you can try betterment or escape, but there’s no getting away from being internally or externally at the threshold of hell. It’s a frenetic album of pop punk that deals with buying dumb shit for one serotonin (“Nikes [Alt]”), the inability to kale and yoga your way out of sadness sometimes (“The Beauty of Breathing”) or just looking the cruelty around us in the eye (“No Dream”), all backed by Rosenstock’s typically great instrumental and melodic work. And then you get something as humanizing as “***BNB,” a meditation on how invasive gig work can be that sounds so fucking tired of the whole thing. But, like all of Rosenstock’s previous work, NO DREAM never stops pursuing the joy and love of being alive and being with others; even if you can’t dream yourself away to an idealized existence, that’s still okay.

3. Kitty – Charm and Mirror
Look, if Kitty keeps making refined spins on her psych electropop, I’m going to keep liking them. Charm and Mirror is more EP than album at 5 songs, but all that means is that it’s probably my most-listened to project of the year. The trick with Kitty’s music, especially as she’s moved into self-producing, is that her compositions and arrangements tend toward being sneakily intricate while also being on the surface engaging and memorable, which leads to versatility; you can approach Charm and Mirror as either lean out/vibe/mood listening or focus on the elements of each song, and be rewarded either way (her “Bath Salts” video works as a visual representation of this). You can just zone out to “Baby Pink” or hone in on its army of Tame Impala synths, just as you can hum along to an impossibly charming song like “Afterglow” or appreciate the amount of detailed vocal laying going on. Add in the outer space delight of “12th House” and catchy as hell surf rock of “It Never Hurts,” and what’s not to like?

2. Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind
You’re always in for a treat when an experimentalist decides to go straight ahead, because knowing how to take something apart means you know the best way to put it back together. What other explanation is there for how an experimental artist like Sean Bowie (aka Yves Tumor) switches it up for their 4th album, Heaven to a Tortured Mind? Calling this a rock record is a touch reductive–the core of the thing is still prone toward electro-damaged art funk that exists outside conventional structure–but Heaven’s rock songs (“Gospel For a New Century,” “Medicine Burn,” “Super Stars,” and “Kerosene!” in particular) are designed to blow the hinges off. Pursuing this album off a blind recommendation meant getting utterly knocked on my ass by the drops in “Gospel For a New Century,” or towering “Kerosene!” while loving the way the album’s middle section loops in and out of rock-adjacent experiments like “Romanitcist” and “Dream Palette,” and the slow jam of “A Greater Love,” to say nothing of the nakedly sensual “Super Stars.” But it’s Bowie, dripping charisma and swagger, that keeps this whole thing together; “Medicine Burn” is a hurricane of drums and guitars over which they howl about six hundred teeth, and for a moment, you can hear them sneer through every single one.

1. Dogleg – Melee
The popular narrative around 2020 is that it was the year of soft-touch music. It was the year to use music as a balm against whatever the day’s doomscroll brought forth, a year without mass listening or concerts, a time to get into ambient. And sure, I’d pull up lofi or something for background listening when necessary.

But man, listen, 2020 was so chaotic that if I was making a point to listen to music, I wanted to listen to something tangible and concrete, and damn if Melee doesn’t hit like a Side-A Smash from its titular game. The simple pitch to Melee is, “What if you had an album that hit its first full band drop ten seconds in, and then chose not to let up over the next 36 minutes?” What if you went as hard for the poppy tune named after a Pokemon and the pretty, mid-tempo plus number that sounds like Paramore’s “That’s What You Get” for half a second as you did the shit-kicking brawlers? Melee posits that doing this for each song while, and this is essential, the whole thing doesn’t sound exactly alike is possible and aspirational. And hell, even setting aside “it slaps” as the ultimate qualifier here, Dogleg’s musicality is through the roof: each song has a solid guitar lead line, do or die vocals, and it’s the best rock drumming album (non-Cloud Nothings division) I’ve heard in years. Plus, on a personal note, it was the one album I got to listen to with my friends before everything pandemic kicked in, and getting a touch of that community means something, you know? A reminder that despite this year, music’s still communal and can still shake you out of whatever you’re going through at the moment. Happy New Year.

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