Join Matthew Mansell with his choice for Top 10 best music tracks of 2020.
2020 was crap, but music saved it from being a write-off. Left with only the dribble of pennies from streaming and no tours or festivals to play, musicians had to be creative. Bandcamp threw them a lifeline with their promise to waive their fee every first Friday of the month—to date, this has raised about $20 million for artists—but this also came with the burden of artists needing new wares to sell.
For some artists this meant recording covers, printing new shirts, making masks or finding some obscure demos to release. Other strategies included setting up a Patreon account to fund new recordings, or live shows over Zoom with a suggested donation box. With legally enforceable downtime thrust upon them, many artists like Charlie XCX, Gorillaz, Laura Jane Grace or Adrianne Lenker recorded and released new albums, while others dusted off shelved projects.
One artist who benefited from the latter was The Anchoress, who after delaying her second album and tour due to having to shield, released her five-year-old collaboration album with Suede guitarist Bernard Butler—a project originally mothballed by the label—to great acclaim and has now found advanced tracks for her second album being playlisted on national radio. It’s a positive example of turning a crisis into an opportunity, but let’s not kid ourselves, for the most part, it has been a tough year for musicians and people whose livelihoods depend on live music.
So this Christmas season, if you can, perhaps you could buy some merchandise from an up-and-coming artist so they know that when this pandemic is over they have an audience waiting to see them again? You could also donate to a local gig venue trying to survive? Or perhaps even purchase merchandise from more established musicians, as they have their own crews which they financially support too? Nothing says “I love you Nan” more this Christmas as much as a T-Shirt from your favourite metal band.
For all this hardship, it’s would be easy to try and write off 2020, but it was an excellent year in music regardless and this list could have easily been a Top 50 without breaking a sweat. A few acts who nearly made the cut include (but not limited to): Pillow Queens, Haim, Floral Tattoo, Beabadoobee, Khruangbin, Fontaines D.C, Hinds, Squid, Margo Price, Pa Salieu and Potter Payer. All equally worthy of your attention but hopefully the 10 I have picked will provide you with comfort and joy this season. So enjoy!
10. Soccer Mommy “Royal Screw Up”
“I am the problem for me, now and always”— “Royal Screw Up” is a self-lacerating highlight from Sophie Allison aka Soccer Mommy’s second studio album Color Theory. The track is a stripped-back portrait of a narcissus coming to terms with her own character flaws, as well as a witty debunking of outdated notions of chivalric romance. Funny, threatening and worrying in equal measure, the song deals with a whole gamut of issues with the lightest of touch. Sophie isn’t wallowing in misery here: she is owning it.
9. IDLES “Mr. Motivator”
One of the most distinctive openings to any song this year, Mark Bowen’s roars “Mr. Motivator” to life like a lion announcing he is the dominant predator. In quick succession, a series of surrealist collages pile on top of each other—all worthy of Cold War Steve—each funnier than the last; my personal pick of the bunch is “ Like Flava Flav in the club ridin’ on the back of John Wayne”. It all leads to a rallying call of a chorus for solidarity, prefigured by lead singer Joe Talbot baiting his critics with “ how do you like them cliches?” The answer is very much.
8. Low Cut Connie “Private Lives”
One of the few joys of lockdown was Adam Weiner’s sensational Tough Cookies shows on Facebook: zipping himself into tight leather trousers, one of the greatest piano showmen of our age exploded from the phone screen with plenty of sweaty abandon, a steady supply of easy-to-rip vests and questionable hygiene—sometimes sticking his toe in his guitarist’s ears. He would holler to his virtual audience while he seamlessly threaded his way from country to soul to rock and roll and hip hop without missing a note. No other live Zoom show came close. As word got out, the audience for each show got bigger as word and “Private Lives“ capitalised on this momentum with style. If Elton John ever got the chance to riff with the Spider of Mars, this might have been the result. It’s a sweaty and intoxicating ride down some grubby back alleys with hopeful down-and-outs straight out of a Pogues song. Like Adam’s trousers, you may need a wash afterwards
7. The 1975 “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”
As befits a band who named their last album A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, “Too Shy…” tells the tale of how a Cam Girl addict is manipulated by the object of his affection until he becomes the one that has to perform for her. The 1975 have always had an “anything goes” attitude to songwriting and “Too Shy…” goes all 80s here: from blatantly lifting the beat from Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, to a pious intro ala “Vienna” to some sleazy saxophone to capture that cheap motel vibe. They pilfered from the best and put a modern spin on it; for their efforts, it was their biggest UK hit to date and deservedly so.
6. Yves Tumor “Super Stars”
From the transcendent ambience of “Limerence”, to the slowed-down Kylie samples of “Slow” via the looped strings of “Noid”, Sean Bowie has become more ambitious with each release, all without losing that heavy sensuality that is his trademark. On his fourth project Heaven to a Tortured Mind, his songwriting aesthetically sounds more traditionally rock but the mix retains the metallic dissonance of his earlier work. The stand-out track is “Super Stars” which comes on like something Prince or Funkadelic may have ad-libbed towards the end of a five-hour live set: the track ebbs and flows over shrill, shrieking guitar which is softened by a sweet lullaby falsetto. It’s noise-rock for the soul and the type of pick-me-up tune we all need this year.
5. The Chicks “Gaslighter”
As country music enjoys a critical renaissance—the recently renamed— Chicks returned with this earworm of the track, hooking the listener in straight away with that gorgeous and distinctive opening acapella. “Gaslighter” is a clever post #MeToo reworking of the my-cheating-heart stereotype; each line, a scathing psychoanalysis of the needy man-child seeking solace with anything with breasts and a pulse. No quarter is given but rather than embittered it sounds triumphant, as they rip off his designer suit to reveal the wanker within.
4. Burna Boy “Monsters You Made”
Break down all the separate components—a Chris Martin feature, the light reggae, autotuned vocals, a melody lifted from “Dirty Diana”—and “Monsters You Made” could easily have been some crass attempt at an Afrobeat crossover hit. But the softness in the production only makes the incendiary anger in Damini Ogulu aka Burna Boy’s verses more potent: raging furiously at internalised colonialism—“Dem European teachings in my African school…That said they found the river Niger”—and Nigerian government corruption. Like Run the Jewels on RTJ4, “Monsters You Made” seemed to predict real life when protests in Nigeria against police brutality broke out not long after. Rather than the bland hodgepodge of styles it could have been, “Monsters You Made” is a flare being lit for the world to see.
3. Taylor Swift “cardigan”
Folklore reintroduced Taylor Swift as the master storyteller further perfecting her art, and on “cardigan” she doubled down on the subject matter she continually returns to: teenage girls dealing with heartbreak for the first time. The little details here are exquisite: Swift chewing out the line “When you are young, they assume you know nothing”, the yearning strings, the beats skittering around like rain on a windowpane, and the cringeworthy, misogynist cliches the young boy uses to reel her in. Repeated listens are a must to find the subtle details weaved into the narrative, such as the character’s loss of virginity which is hinted at through simile—“stepping on the last train, mark me like a bloodstain”. Swift has always been an adept songwriter whatever genre she turns her hat to, and the joy of “cardigan” is that she’s getting better.
2. Orville Peck and Shania Twain “Legends Never Die”
“Legends Never Die” is a blatant attempt by Orville to reward his major label’s trust in him by writing a karaoke classic in the vein of “Islands in the Stream”, and it works on every level. Shania Twain is pitch-perfect playing the cowgirl riding back into town, emphasising her country twang with every vowel she can, while Orville hams it up in his best Elvis baritone. The production is so shiny, that ripe lines like “I’ve been rode hard and put up wet” may bypass the casual listener. Familiar, subversive and heading straight for the mainstream, “Legends Never Die” is an incredible calling card.
1. Arlo Parks “Black Dog”
“I take a jump off the fire escape, to make the black dog go away”—Arlo may, or may not, be aware of work of the 80s/90s writer David Foster Wallace, whose magnum opus Infinite Jest and other essays explored mental health, but she shares his humour and empathy. The use of “fire escape” specifically reminds me of David’s analogy that depression is like being burnt by a fire that no-one else can see.
Arlo’s promise here to a depressed friend cleverly works both as a sign of solidarity and black joke to try and raise a smile. “Black Dog” is full of meaningful pearls like this, from cheeky—“you do your eyes like Robert Smith”—to despair—“At least I know you are trying. But that’s what makes it terrifying”. As smooth as Frank Ocean covering a lost Elliot Smith song,—a single guitar strum repeats throughout the track, like dark thoughts forever on the periphery— “Black Dog” is a deeply moving portrayal of having to watch somebody close to you go through a mental health crisis, and is timely in a year where many of us have been put under greater stress than ever before. It’s near impossible to listen to it and then not want to pick up a phone to somebody you are worried about but haven’t spoken to in a while. It’s an understated masterpiece.
So there you have it, my Top 10 best music tracks of 2020, let me know what would be on your list in the comments or on social media.