The best tracks of an already extraordinary year in music.
The first half of 2020 may not have panned out exactly as most of us planned, but the silver lining for me has been a chance to catch up on tons of music and get back into writing about it. This week I'm focusing on the twenty best songs of the past six months before diving into the albums of the year in two weeks time, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, read on for twenty tracks that have provided an excellent soundtrack during these strange and interesting times.
Note: In the interest of diversifying both song and album lists, I've tried to avoid as much crossover as possible between the two (with the exception of a few artists I couldn't possibly avoid including on both). So if you don't see someone below that you were expecting, they could easily show up on my album list. Or maybe they just weren't damn good enough.
'Aries' - Gorillaz (feat. Peter Hook & Georgia)
Damon Albarn's output since reforming Gorillaz in 2017 has been hit (The Now Now) and miss (Humanz), but this year's Song Machine project (in which the band release a song or 'episode' on a monthly basis) has been a triumph for everyone's favourite animated artists. An excellent mix of guest musicians have led the group's most intriguing output since their reformation, and none more so than Joy Division and New Order veteran Peter Hook, who is cleverly utilized on 'Aries', a self proclaimed ''happy tune'' that harkens back to the sound of magnum opus Plastic Beach with its shimmering synth keyboards and Albarn's wistful vocal refrain.
'Cayendo (Side A - Acoustic)' - Frank Ocean
Expectations are always insanely high when Frank Ocean releases new material, but it truly seems there is no wrong this man can do. The double release of 'Dear April' and 'Cayendo' in March made waves on streaming services, yet it was the latter of the two that truly resonated for me. There aren't too many words left to use to describe the pure beauty of Ocean's voice, and this Channel Orange-esque ballad is no exception with bilingual vocals accompanied on a sole electric guitar. The minimalist instrumentation of the track ensures that Frank's performance is front and centre, allowing the raw emotion of these words to speak for themselves and ensuring that any kind of language barrier is effortlessly transcended.
'Delete Forever' - Grimes
Grimes takes a moment to breathe on Miss Anthropocene before rave bangers 'Violence' and '4ÆM' kick in to take us on an electropop trip for the ages, and that breath is the sublime bliss of 'Delete Forever'. Claire Boucher wrote this introspective folk-inspired track on the night of Lil Peep's death, and as such it's a frank examination on the nature of addiction. Above a euphonious cacophony of banjo and strings, Boucher gushes that she ''Can't see above it/Guess I fucking love it'', exposing a kind of vulnerability rarely witnessed in her often elusive songwriting. This is Grimes at her most confessional, a window into the soul of a true visionary, and as such quite possibly my leading candidate for the song of 2020.
'forever' - Charli XCX
From the opening twenty seconds of lead single 'forever', it was clear as day that we were going to hear something special on how i'm feeling now, Charli XCX's lockdown masterpiece. Synths crash into each other like the world is falling down around you as Charli fights through the chaos with the kind of vocal hook that will stay with you all year. Much like everything on HIFN, 'forever' is chaos and beauty intertwined, an abrasive lullaby as imperfect as it is unforgettable.
'Good News' - Mac Miller
As someone who admittedly was never a massive fan of Mac Miller, it was startling to discover how much 'Good News' affected me on my first listen, and every subsequent one since. A heartbreaking account of the rapper's final days, the lead single from posthumous collection Circles was not just a tragic farewell to the legions of Miller disciples, but also an extraordinary glimpse at the kind of artist that Malcolm McCormick was becoming.
'I Don't Belong' - Fontaines D.C.
The Irish post punk outfit are set to release their sophomore record at the end of the month, and judging by the trio of outstanding singles to come out in support of it, A Hero's Death could be one of the albums of the year, and 'I Don't Belong' is the standout track for my money. Set to be the album opener, frontman Grian Chatten describes it as a 'dismissal of expectations' and you can certainly hear a major shift in tone between this and previous album starter 'Big', as a more purposeful and weighty band performance allows Chatten space to explore deeply poetic lyrical themes in his distinctively swaggering style.
'Idontknow' - Jamie xx
It has been a full five years since In Colour, and on Jamie xx's solo return this year, he showcases a darker side to his sound. The vibrant and warm synths that made In Colour such an emotive listen are gone as Jamie navigates a cold and alien soundscape, dueling vocal lines combining with an accelerating drum machine and heavily trance inspired ambient beats on a skillful, exhilarating departure for the xx producer. It's unknown at this point if 'Idontknow' could be the beginning of a longer format release or just a one off, but it would certainly be an alluring sound for the DJ to pursue.
'Juro Que' - Rosalía An insatiable burst of flamenco fused with modern R&B - it could only be Rosalía. The Catalana is set to release her third album this year and if singles like 'Juro Que', 'Dolerme' and Travis Scott feature 'TKN' are anything to go by, this could be the 26 year old's biggest and best record yet. The Spanish icon is long overdue the kind of massive global chart success befitting the quality of singles like this.
'Kyoto' - Phoebe Bridgers
It would have been easy to include any of Punisher's ten spectacular compositions on this list, but 'Kyoto' is the one that initially made me so curious to hear Bridgers' second album. An infectious indie rock jam wonderfully complimented by Nate Walcott's horn arrangement with deceptively melancholic lyrics about Bridgers' imposter syndrome while on tour in Japan, 'Kyoto' is a perfect example of all the qualities that make its young composer one of the most exciting songwriters in the world right now.
'Ladies' - Fiona Apple Simply put, my favourite song on my favourite album of the year. I'll explore Fiona Apple's outstanding fifth record in more detail on my album list, but needless to say Fetch The Bolt Cutters could have populated this entire list alongside Punisher if I hadn't established some ground rules. So, why 'Ladies'? Perhaps it's Apple's incomparable delivery, unrivaled storytelling, undeniable wit or the wondrous combination of all three throughout these five minutes and twenty five seconds. 'Ladies' manages to simultaneously be a call to arms for female unity, a celebration of womanhood and its unique characteristics, yet perhaps most intriguingly a meditation on Apple's guilt toward fellow members of her sex whom she feels she may have betrayed in past relationships. It is a powerful, timely examination of female spirit, and 2020 is better for its existence.
'Love in Mine' - Big Thief
Big Thief continue their hot streak after dropping not just one but two of 2019's best indie albums, and the quartet show no signs of slowing down in terms of quantity or quality. 'Love in Mine' finds frontwoman Adrienne Lenker at her most tender and enthralling on an unabashed love song, which remarkably only found its release as a B side for last year's UFOF vinyl. Either way, it's a gift for fans to hear a digital release in 2020.
'Me And You Together Song' - The 1975
The 1975's heavily anticipated Notes On A Conditional Form was a highly inconsistent end product, which was all the more disappointing considering the excellent set of singles which were dropped across the year preceding its release. Of the eight (yes, eight!) tracks made available to fans before NOACF arrived, punk rocker 'People', intimate folk ballad 'The Birthday Party' and 80s synthpop throwback 'If You're Too Shy Let Me Know' all laid a claim to appearing on this list, but perhaps the most fruitful genre that Matty Healy & co. explored on Notes was the delightful sound of 90s jangle pop that gave birth to 'Me And You Together Song', an absurdly joyful trip down nostalgia lane and one of the album's many diamonds in the rough.
'Murder Most Foul' - Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan's post millennium discography has gone under the radar to some extent, but I do believe that when all is said and done, we will look back on Modern Times, Tempest and Rough and Rowdy Ways as bonafide and underappreciated classics in his repertoire along with the more obvious greats. As the behemoth closer to Dylan's latest work (a fabled Dylan spot, this is 'Desolation Row' and 'Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' territory we're talking here) , 'Murder Most Foul' earns every single second of its near seventeen minute run time as we are taken on an evocative, winding journey back to the JFK assassination which Dylan recounts in violent detail, all the while weaving in and out of a fever dream about 21st century America as The Beatles, Woodstock, Uncle Sam, Marilyn Monroe and Bugsy Siegel star among a cast of what seems like thousands in the latest masterwork from our greatest living poet.
'My Ranjeesh' - Sufjan Stevens
In many respects there is no greater eventual successor to Bob Dylan than Sufjan Stevens, who has spent the past two decades crafting a roadmap of American life through seminal works like Illinois, The Age of Adz and most recently 2015's gorgeous ode to parenthood Carrie & Lowell. The instrumental release Aporia (on which he teamed with his stepfather Lowell Brams) was an underwhelming listen earlier this year, yet it seems that the ambient soundscapes explored on that record could be put to better use on his forthcoming eighth solo album The Ascension, based on epic recent single 'America' and particularly its B side 'My Ranjeesh', a ten minute slow burning blend of synth and folk which is closer in sound to Sufjan's best work than the pure experimentation of its A side. It is a shame that 'Ranjeesh' won't make the final cut when The Ascension comes out in September but this still stands out as one of the year's best tracks on its own.
'Never Come Back' - Caribou
The standout cut from Dan Snaith's fifth album as Caribou is the electronica musician at his most accessible, yet 'Never Come Back' is also a subtle exercise in exploration over the course of its five minute run time. In other circumstances this could have been a global club hit for the summer, but you still get the feeling that house parties around the world will be coming back to this one for years.
'People, I've been sad' - Christine and the Queens
'People, I've been sad' arrived just a few weeks before the world seemingly fell apart in March, and the timing really couldn't have been better. An crushingly intimate account of the type of loneliness that felt universal just a few short months ago, 'People' finds Christine at her most honest, confessing her darkest thoughts in a mixture of English and her native French over a minimalist synth pop beat. As usual with the Queens best work, the power is in Chris' total commitment and unmistakable presence, whether it be on stage or in studio.
'ringtone (remix)' - 100 Gecs (feat. Charli XCX, Rico Nasty & Kero Kero Bonito)
Regardless of your feelings on 100 Gecs transgressive brand of experimental electronica, 1000 Gecs was without doubt one of the most fascinating debuts of any genre in recent memory, if for nothing else than how aggressively it pursued Laura Les and Dylan Brady's abrasive ideas and harsh sound. The duo's new remix album is a similarly novel experience, re-imagining signature tracks like 'ringtone' so boldly that the original versions and their remixes sound like the musical equivalent of a roughly sketched drawing to a Salvador Dali-esque work of abstract art. Boasting one of the best choruses of the year and a formidable trio of diversely talented features, 'ringtone' is the rare remix that leaves its predecessor in the dust and evolves into an entirely new animal itself. We're talking Magikarp to Gyarados level shit here.
'Weightlifters' - Car Seat Headrest
It's not controversial to say that Making A Door Less Open was an underwhelming release in the context of Will Toledo's major label output to date. Toledo's twelfth album as CSH was preceded by some odd single choices ('Hollywood') and a wardrobe change as Will donned a gas mask for the entirety of the band press tour, because why not. MADLO itself was an uneven listen but there were still glimpses of Toledo's instinctive gift for lo-fi guitar rock melodies beneath the half-baked electro detours, with 'Weightlifters' the highlight of the bunch. As the oldest song on the record having been written originally in 2015, it's closer in sound to Teens of Denial and enough to make you wish that Will had focused on his always inventive guitar work a bit more for the final album. Toledo describes 'Weightlifters' as ''a little bit Nine Inch Nails'' with its droning guitar line inducing the kind of anxiety throughout the track which is explored in further detail through the emotive lyrics which find the author willing his body to fix his broken mind.
'We Will Always Love You' - The Avalanches (feat. Blood Orange)
The Avalanches haven't lost a step in the last 4 years as evidenced by this fantastic lead single which kicks off the album cycle for the group's third studio album and follow up to 2016 comeback Wildflower. Employing the mellow R&B stylings of Blood Orange and a couple of typically immaculate samples in the form of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles as well as 80s Irish-American vocal trio The Roches, 'We Will Always Love You' is an exquisite return that will satisfy loyal Avalanches listeners and also potentially tease some long deserved mainstream success if there is any justice.
'You're Too Precious' - James Blake This stirring electronic ballad was described by James Blake as ''a nice accompaniment to a lockdown dinner''. While I might debate the merits of that particular sentiment, 'Precious' is a reliably dazzling mix of piano and glitched out vocals that finds Blake in a thoughtful moment, worried that someone close to him has become too precious to lose. Blake has been productive this year, recently dropping the similarly captivating 'Are You Even Real?' following a charming livestream performance back in March, giving cause to hope for a follow up to 2018's ethereal Assume Form by the end of the year. More of this would be very welcome regardless.
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