Everything else this year was terrible, but at least the music was fucking fantastic.
This might be the absolute closest my published list has ever been in terms of gaps between the entries on the quality spectrum. Especially when you get into the Top 25 (aside from the #1 which has been lodged there since August), almost every one of these slots is separated by nose hairs and the ranking is honestly arbitrary in the sense that, until I ran it through in full last Saturday as a playlist, I could’ve rearranged this entire thing depending on how I woke up that morning. It was agonising putting this thing together. Rewarding, don’t get me wrong, but agonising, physically painful. I can tell you the exact last five cuts I made in locking this list in: Waxahatchee “Lilacs,” then METZ “A Boat to Drown In,” then Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion “WAP,” then The Strokes “Ode To the Mets,” then last of all Busta Rhymes “Don’t Go (with Q-Tip)” which was initially in that Top 50 until being bumped at the very last second (and not by the #50 entry either). More than any other year of the now decade I’ve been doing these lists, I wanted to make this a Top 75, just to get everything in.
I’m writing a proper piece examining the state of music in 2020 yesterday over at Soundsphere in a few days – yeah, we’re Marvel Cinematic Universe-ing Listmas this year – so let’s instead look over the statistics for this year’s list to see what it says about my growth as a human being. Overall tone? Sad, angry, and gay. “So, no different than last year, then?” not-incorrectly jeers the crowd. But, in seriousness, it does feel like I’ve burrowed deeper into that niche than in prior years in an effort to deal with the ongoing and terrifying Stupid Apocalypse we’ve found ourselves in. I listened to a lot more out-and-out punk and post-hardcore this year, in particular, although most of it fell short of cracking the 50. Just as often as I retreated into emotional malaise/catharsis, I was blasting out rap bangers (a Top 75 would’ve likely made this list half rap songs) or ‘dancing’ like crazy around the house whilst my Dad’s cats judged mercilessly in an effort to mentally envision the momentary connections live music used to bring me in the Before Times.
31 of the 50 entries are either by women or have female members in their credited make-up, as further evidence for the burgeoning “Callum Petch is a misandrist” conspiracy theories floating around. (Joke’s on them, I actually am one.) Significantly more surprising, 30 (32 technically when not counting prior appearances as features or in groups) of the 50 are first-timers to the countdown. Considering the stories I’ve read about listener streaming habits during the ongoing plague, I suspect I’m an anomaly in just how much entirely brand new music I’ve consumed this year. But even if I know how much new stuff I’ve tried this year, it’s still legitimately surprising when laid out like that. How much the discovery of the new has commanded my 2020. That said, we do have two new inductees to the Three-Timers Club and our first Five-Time Five-Time Five-Time Five-Time Five-Time list-maker to celebrate! See if you can guess which are which!
Before we kick off this Xmas treat – apologies for missing the usual pre-Xmas weekend release, I’ve been busy and music just did not stop – the usual rules. Only songs originally released in 2020 are eligible for the list regardless of whether a single from a prior year has been bundled onto a 2020 album, unless there is a significant difference in the album take; this in particular voids Róisín Murphy’s “Simulation” and, yes, it would’ve been Top 10 had it not originally released in 2012. Remixes of pre-2020 songs are only eligible if the remix substantially changes the track; hence nothing from 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues. For this year in particular, live tracks are just straight up not allowed cos that’s cheating; The War on Drugs must wait yet another year to finally get their long overdue recognition on these countdowns. And, most importantly of all, only one song per artist, although repeating by features is allowed; we’re looking for that one killer song even if it stunts an artist’s position on the countdown.
Lastly, 10 years of sharing my music lists like I think I’m on comparable stature to Edgar Wright! Our winner shall be joining a very prestigious and idiosyncratic lineage! LET’S LOOK AT SOME!
2011: Florence + The Machine – What the Water Gave Me
2012: Tame Impala – Elephant
2013: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Sacrilege
2014: The Juan MacLean – A Place Called Space
2015: Jamie xx – Loud Places (Feat. Romy)
2016: David Bowie – I Can’t Give Everything Away
2017: Gorillaz – Strobelite (Feat. Pevan Everett)
2018: Florence + The Machine – No Choir
2019: Charly Bliss – Young Enough
Housekeeping’s done, time to kick out the jams! Today, #50 – #31. Tomorrow, #30 – #11. Sunday, the Top 10. As per tradition, there’s a Spotify playlist at the end of all 50 in descending order, and I highly encourage you to support every artist whose work you like by following the Bandcamp embeds where applicable. After this year, and with 2021 inbound, they really do need your monetary support more than ever.
We’re in the midst of quite the 90s pop revival in the indie-adjacent sphere as the new generation of talent goes about rescuing previously (often-unfairly) maligned FM cornerstones from their uncool drubbing and upcycles them into genuinely brilliant slices of new yet comfortingly familiar pop. (You’re gonna see quite a few of them in the rest of this list.) Whilst most have put their eyes towards artists already due a re-evaluation like Britney Spears and Sheryl Crow, Samia Finnerty chose to use “Big Wheel” as a vehicle for rehabbing, at least in spirit, Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever.” That’s what I most think of whenever I hear this song. Those deep glimmering Casio chords, that warm swimming sonic atmosphere, the way the drums and guitar drive the song along but never in a spell-breaking way, even the vocal range Samia deploys. Bring the tempo down a bit and swap out lyrics of devotion for ones of deeply-relatable conflict-avoidance resignation, and you take Donna Lewis into the 21st Century and I already loved Lewis’ hit anyway. I can’t wait until 2030 when some enterprising up-and-comer does a similar trick for Vanessa Carlton!
49] Megan Thee Stallion
“Savage Remix (Feat. Beyoncé)”
I feel about “Savage Remix” exactly the same way I felt about the “Old Town Road” remix. The original tracks are good, no arguments to the contrary there, but the remixes turn them into complete songs. The “Savage” which appeared on Megan’s SUGA EP had that beat, wisely unchanged here, and Megan’s lovable charisma but it also was just missing something that takes a good song to something near-essential. It felt like a demo or trailer for a finished product to come, particularly in how it just sorta trailed off without a final chorus in less than three minutes. So, it’s more than just the mere addition of Beyoncé, or the fact that it’s Beyoncé in full ‘I could drop a pop-rap classic tomorrow if I felt like it’ mode. It’s in how Megan’s new raps combine with a re-order and minor rewrite of her original raps like when an editor redrafts something with potential into its most potent form, it’s how Bey’s “ok” ad libs on the chorus push the hook over the top, it’s the structure in getting H-Town’s fastest rising star to trade off verses with its unofficial president that brings everything together.
48] Everything Everything
It’s been an amazing year for album closers, as you’re going to see in a few instances throughout this list and also the cutting room floor you won’t get to see. Everything Everything’s RE-ANIMATOR is a record that, even more so than the rest of their discography, can take a few listens to fully crack since it’s a significantly more insular and headier album than even they normally put out, much befitting its explorations of human consciousness. But they made sure to save perhaps their most straightforward and instantly gratifying single yet for last, the desperate and near-apocalyptic “Violent Sun.” On an album otherwise at a deliberate loss and war with itself, everything locks together in disarmingly open clarity during this closer, a heartfelt often-spilling declaration of desire in the face of impending doom. The rhythm section pulses forward with an anxious charge, the harmonies are almost screaming in panic in the background, but Jonathan Higgs stands defiant and hopeful as he reassures that “you don’t have to be a lunatic or an error or a prisoner of your terror.” And, God, isn’t that just something we could all do with being reminded of as everything continues to get so much worse?
47] Black Thought
“Good Morning (Feat. Pusha T, Swizz Beats & Killer Mike)”
Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able
Sometimes, especially in these heightened and deeply uncertain days, you just want something simple. Something instant. Something which hits right in the gut in a good way. Something uncomplicatedly pleasurable. Sometimes, you just wanna hear three of the best MCs to ever touch a mic tear into a hype-ass jock jam trunk-rattling beat like it’s lunch hour; just body that shit like it owes them substantial amounts of money. “Good Morning” obliges. Oh, boy, does it ever oblige! And, because said demolition over a sick-ass Sean C beat is being done by The Roots’ Black Thought and RTJ’s Killer Mike, said technical evisceration also comes with just as much for the brain as there is for the neck. “Your life can depend on the law of averages/The difference between Black and White is mad privilege.” “Before we ever sold cocaine, we civilized Spain.” King Push goes more for straight-up shit talk than Thought and Mike, but like hell am I complaining when it provides me with bars like “Panamera shopping in the pandemic/The work got grill lines when the pan’s searing.” No idea what Swizz is doing, mind, but it’s got its own charm at least.
46] Taylor Swift
2020: the year in which I discovered that, when she’s not tasked with writing just the absolute worst singles, maybe Taylor Swift is good at music after all. The best parts of folklore are where she disappears into character studies, most especially the teenaged love triangle thread between Betty, Augustine and James that runs throughout the album, culminating in “betty.” There’s a real Bob Dylan-esque feel to the song, and not just because of the harmonica that keeps recurring, albeit with the winning pop melody eye Taylor is known for and a focussed concision Dylan himself seems to adamantly refuse especially nowadays. Those guitars so perfectly conjure up a nostalgic 16mm camcorder glow which brilliantly contrasts with the messy yet ultimately sincere apologia Taylor’s James spools from his stupid but weirdly rootable mouth. And, yes, you had better believe I did a full basic-bitch double-take when my first listen revealed during the bridge that this tied into both “august” and “cardigan;” I can’t not pop for brilliant call-back reveals like that. More of this Taylor, please! Significantly less “the Old Taylor can’t come to the phone” Taylor!
45] Cable Ties
It really cannot be said enough that the true worst enemy of leftists are, in fact, other leftists. Specifically, those who decide that the best thing to do when confronted with actual damaging conservatism/fascism that’s destroying livelihoods, oppressing minorities and actively killing the lower classes is devolve into bitter infighting and shitting on folks in a dick-measuring contest over whom is more performatively woke than everyone else. Whose voice is actually worthwhile in times like these, who is allowed to make leftist art nowadays, and demanding absolute radical perfection at all times whilst they themselves contribute nothing to the conversation besides said call-outs and shitting, oftentimes whilst sporting the first name of Jazz. Just the dirt fucking worst, those people are. Melbourne’s own Cable Ties agree with that assessment and wrote a raucous, blisteringly un-subtle garage post-punk ripper called “Sandcastles” designed to blast such pricks into the sun with a Corin Tucker-esque wail and the kind of sticky teasing chorus Fontaines D.C. could do with being bothered to write for once.
To tell you the truth, I do actually belong to the camp that believes Ultra Mono is somewhat of a step back for a band that had otherwise been batting near-enough a thousand up to now. But it does have some real blinding bright spots, times where the band’s growing tightness as a musical unit and Mono’s significantly improved production chops are met with the Joe Talbot lyricism of their prior albums to crystalise into the potential best IDLES form possible. Case in point, “Model Village,” a hilarious and deeply cathartic screed against Britain’s least empathetic, least self-aware, most self-involved, most hateable denizens. IDLES’ usual motoric chug turns almost danceable thanks to the additional breathing room in the mix whilst not sacrificing their ability to sock a listener in the jaw during the chorus, and the much-vaunted hip hop influences lead to these great ad libs from crazed guitarist Mark Bowen. And if Joe’s lyrical portrait reduces the targets to total caricature for his base to feel smugly satisfied throwing fruit at… well, yeah, but also excuse me for really not having the time or energy to empathise with Tory voters of any stripe whilst their party is driving me and my friends off a fucking cliff right now.
43] Kelly Lee Owens
So, you know how the synths in New Order’s “Blue Monday” actually came in off their intended beat and it only made the record because the band really liked the subtly off-kilter effect it created? I get kinda similar vibes from Kelly Lee Owens’ “Jeanette.” Whether in isolation or in sequence on-album, there are times where my brain can hook onto the wrong beat of the synth loop and class that as the 1 instead of the actual 1, so then the kicks come in and cause my brain to go all cross-eyed attempting to readjust. It’s an effect I’m fairly certain isn’t completely intentional, one caused by simply flipping the typical order in which the two instrument tracks are introduced, but I really love it all the same. Especially when the kicks drop out again at the midpoint, leaving the synths to loop for about a minute in gradually ascending keys, and then crash back in in complete lockstep like a burry picture finally snapping into focus. Even when my brain isn’t being a dullard, this is still a fantastic example of minimalist techno because the culmination of that progression when the kicks return is just stunning. It singlehandedly sold the record to me right there.
42] Beach Bunny
Y’all know me. I’m the protagonist of a queer 90s-set teenaged girl coming of age romance dramedy stuck in this shitty 2020s masculine body. Anything that I can even remotely envision appearing on the soundtrack of said movie, or a series of mixtapes inspired by said, or even just the background of a modern-day Daria reboot (that NOBODY SHOULD ACTUALLY DO NO STOP IT IMMEDIATELY CEASE) causes Pavlovian responses of glee and obsession in me. I am literally incapable of not stanning with my entire being. Of course, I love Beach Bunny. Of course, I am bopping along in my seat instinctively right now to “Cuffing Season” as I type these words. Of course, I adore those “ooh-ooh” harmonies in the chorus and that guitar tone during the bridge. Of course, “sometimes I like being on my own, I’m afraid of winding up alone” makes me feel seen every single time I hear it and would absolutely be my AOL Chat sign off were AOL Chat still a thing the kids use. If any of these things weren’t true, you’d have to get the authorities involved because I’ll have been the victim of identity theft!
41] Open Mike Eagle
“everything ends last year”
Anime, Trauma and Divorce
“It’s October and I’m tired.” When Mike Eagle sighs that line out in the gutting “everything ends last year,” he’s referring the gradually increasing pile-up of personal failures going on in his life at that point. He’s struggling to make ends meet financially. His depression is raging unchecked and causing him to be a bummer around everyone. His TV show has been unceremoniously cancelled. The record label he ran with his best friends has fallen apart amid bitter infighting over money. His marriage is in ruins. Over a sparse purgatorial beat almost completely lacking in drums and uncomfortably shrouded in ambiance – in fact, it’s not far removed from some of the songs featured on the latest Mountain Goats record (“Tidal Wave” was #56 btw) – it’s a haunting dark night of the soul confessional when examined in isolated context of the album’s narrative. But Anime, Trauma and Divorce dropped mid-October 2020 and… yeah, fuck, man, y’know?
“All or Nothing”
All or Nothing
Another brilliant album closer, albeit one I actually first experienced as an album opener. All the non-Bandcamp streaming services have the title track from the British dance-post-punk trio’s fourth album as the opener and it kinda works best like that? As a scene-setting curtain-jerker that perfectly introduces the band, their wiry and energetic yet sparse sound, and their stark anti-consumerist lyrical barks headed up by Rachel Aggs, all whilst the song gradually builds to a sonically overwhelming cliffhanger stop that leads ideally into lead single (from 2019) “Initiative.” But on all the physical versions sold by the band, “All or Nothing” switches places with “Trust in Us” to act as the closer and I’m not sure why? This fact has been bugging me for most of the year and I’m gonna need an answer as to what’s going on definitively at some point! Song still slaps, either way; I love those tom blasts during the time signature-shifted bridge.
There are two things that “Ravi” puts me in mind of, both of which are very good things indeed. The first is vintage Daft Punk, a sorta halfway house between Homework’s lighter moments and Discovery. The way in which Dan Snaith manipulates his samples and synths to create this bouncy, house-y loop that feels like a much-needed beacon of warming sunshine beaming down on your soul. How out of speakers it has a vintage pop house snap to the drums that really should’ve had the opportunity to soundtrack some Summer gatherings, whilst in headphones it’s a lovely enveloping and engaging vibe of the kind that (to say it yet again) Kevin Parker keeps aiming for with every post-Lonerism Tame Impala record but for some reason just can’t nail. The second thing “Ravi” puts me in mind of is Snaith’s own “Julia Brightly” but sweeter and buffed out to a full song instead of an all-too-brief interlude. Since “Julia” is my absolute favourite thing the man has yet done, obviously I love this.
38] Kylie Minogue
Imagine how much better “Chained to the Rhythm” would’ve been with quality production, no crowbarred-in Skip Marley verse, no pretentions to being politically relevant, a better vocal performance, and like 106% more gay? Well, imagine no longer cos “Magic” is basically that – seriously, those keys are stolen directly from Katy Perry’s single, it’s a wonder nobody’s been sued yet. Kylie’s contribution to the Great Pop Girl Disco Arms Race of 2020 kicks off her best album in nearly two decades as a statement of intent. Like, for Kylie, “Magic” does not break much, if any, new ground; she’s been dropping gay disco stompers since Back in Black. But, God, there is just something so rapturously satisfying on a deep primal level in hearing somebody with nothing left to prove in their specialist area just drop something so effortlessly brilliant simply because they can. It even sounds like magic! That higher register at the end of each chorus! The burble of the bass! Those horns!
37] Yves Tumor
Heaven to a Tortured Mind
1:27. Just 1:27. That’s the whole entry. Oh sure, I could do my usual sub-200 words explanation to further extrapolate why “Kerosene!” is the standout from Yves’ brilliant fourth studio album, maybe invoke the spectres of Prince and Bowie like every other music critic has done when discussing their music. But, nah, don’t need to. 1:27. Maybe also the 10 or so seconds beforehand when the drums do a little syncopation before dropping out for four bars as 1:27 happens. But definitely 1:27. That’s all which needs to be said here. 1:27.
36] Mac Miller
When I continually insist upon seeing Year-End lists on December 1st that “the year’s not over until it’s over,” that’s not just because new music is being released all the time and you never know when a Beyoncé, Run the Jewels 3, or Pop 2 might drop. But it’s also because, especially when it comes to music, sometimes a song or album which didn’t quite hit you right upon its original release can suddenly click completely into place and become all you listen to for a fortnight months down the line. And as 2020’s slow death march rolled into December, that effect reared its head in a big way with Mac Miller’s exhausted “Complicated.” As someone who had no knowledge of Mac’s music prior to his passing, I don’t get the full haunting effect of him singing lines about his crushing anxiety, how “‘fore [he] think[s] about the future, first can [he] please get through the day,” and how he’s “way too young to be getting old.” But those are lines I feel in my soul as the nights get longer, the temperatures get colder, and the full extent of my shite-bag of a year becomes clearer. Paired with Jon Brion’s comforting neo-soul production, I’ve been spinning this dozens of a times a go recently.
35] Laura Marling
Song for Our Daughter
Closer #3. Laura Marling loosened Song for Our Daughter in very early Summer, well ahead of schedule, as a gift mid-lockdown but I can only picture its finale, “For You,” in the cold of winter with a roaring fire being stoked between verses. In fact, it may be the most folky song Marling has ever done? At least, when I think sonically of British folk music in that 60s British pop vein, it’s very classic McCartney. The way that guitar was recorded, the flute break, those bass-y harmony hums which anchor the track down, especially the melody of the chorus and how the titular phrase comes in. There’s such contentment and peace in Marling’s lyrics and delivery, almost like a lullaby which is of course befitting the song being an ode to her imaginary infant daughter. In darker days throughout this year, that chorus has been strangely recurrent in my head, so I guess that means Marling’s decision to drop early did exactly what it was meant to.
“Donuts Mind If I Do”
Donuts Mind If I Do – Single
The more I hear of CHAI, the more they remind me of bis, the cult poppy punky dance-y band from Glasgow. Some of that’s sonically, especially since bis cribbed a lot from J-Pop on their first two albums, but it’s predominately in musical ability and attitude. Their knack for being able to stretch their sound into entirely unexpected directions yet not only have the results be irresistible pop confections but also retain their essential CHAI-ness. “Donuts,” their first release after signing to Sub Pop, goes all in on the City-Pop elements of PUNK standouts “Curly Adventure” and “Wintime” but strips out the abrasive edges of those prior songs and finds an almost chillwave vibe in that swimming pool production, especially when Mana hits that higher register during the chorus. I just adore when she goes for those higher moments, I get chills and serotonin every single time. “Donuts” gives me the same sweet disco vibes as Puffy AmiYumi’s “Cosmic*Wonder” and “Swimming Pool,” only now with the added bonus of lyrics about loving donuts!
33] Boldy James & The Alchemist
“Grey October (Feat. Evidence)”
The Price of Tea in China
Here are two guys who went on an absolute motherfucking tear this year. Alchemist, in addition to dropping great loosies/deep cuts for guys like Westside Gunn and Jay Electronica, put out full album collabs with Boldy James and Freddie Gibbs that ended up as two of the best rap LPs of the year and both men’s careers. Boldy, for his part, dropped four full albums and the floor in terms of their quality was ‘really fucking good.’ Both guys are at the peak of their powers on the haunting “Grey October.” Alc’s propensity for moody minor-key beats which can drift along on an ethereal tip, lacking in drums and only held in place where spare bass notes and crackling sampled guitar plucks, constructs maybe his most affecting beat ever here. Boldy, never a warm-hearted rapper on the best of days, is at his most reflective and cold, a man who has seen it all in the drug game and is almost numb to its effects by now. (“When Noonie found out he got killed, it brought our pain some closure.”) Guest rapper Evidence, meanwhile, manages to meet Boldy and the beat on their terms whilst still bringing his own unique energy that stands out without breaking the track. (“Rising from the scorched earth/I roll up and torch it.”)
32] Lady Gaga
When putting together these lists, I try to look at the whole song. How the instrumentation locks together or progresses, whether the lyrics stand up to scrutiny, if the performances are up to snuff, do the hooks stick. But, sometimes, a song can have just that one thing which completely makes it. It might only appear for a few seconds, but it’s the exact moment I go from liking a song to ‘that Leonardo DiCaprio Once Upon a Time in Hollywood meme.’ Gaga’s “Enigma” is a really bloody good song. I adore turn-of-the-millennium pop-house production, the specific sound of those piano chords and synthesised strings, and, real hot take, I think this might be Gaga’s best vocal performance ever – there’s such a self-confident freedom in the way she throws that voice across a football pitch with no fear for its imperfections. But what makes the song, what still makes me break into a wide-eyed voguing smile, is the bridge. You know exactly what I mean. 2:07, when her cries of “did you hear what I said?” are met with responses; first “WHAT?!” then “YEAH!” The fact that I couldn’t safely go to a club this year in order to communally recreate that with dozens of sweaty strangers at 1am in the morning is a hate crime. This virus is committing hate crimes.
31] Róisín Murphy
The album mix is the best version of “Murphy’s Law.” It doesn’t feel hobbled from properly getting into the groove like the four-minute radio edit, but it also doesn’t wear out its welcome like the eight-minute extended single cut. Like the three little bears’ porridge, the last one tasted is the one that’s just right. That disco groove is given space to ride, resurrecting exactly the slightly grimy and funky late 70s/early 80s heyday of the genre’s retreat from the mainstream spotlight. But it’s not just the sound being uncannily channelled, for a lot of the best disco paired their exhilarating boogies with longing desires for romantic connection underneath those glittering lights, often being dashed for one reason or another. So, the invocation of “Murphy’s Law” is not just the long overdue playing of a cute pun. It’s also Róisín’s frustration in not being able to lose herself on the dancefloor like she wants to, a desire to rewrite her own story only for those efforts to be scuppered at every opportunity due to being physically unable to escape the sight of her ex. And her vocals deliver that sensation with exactly the level of playful irritation required.
Come on back tomorrow for #30 – #11!
Callie Petch needs to leave this place now more than ever.