7 Songs of 2020 (and no sea shanties)

2020 is over. And what a mess it was. But the year did bring us some musical gems, some of which I’m playing on repeat into the new year. Amanda Petrusich from The New Yorker writes that she gravitated toward music in 2020 that “immediately sounded meaningful.” I understand her point, but I mostly sought out tracks that just made me feel something—good, bad, angry, alive. All of it. In no particular order, here are a few songs that kept me going

Note: Due to embedding issues with WordPress, I am only able to link to these tracks, but clicking on the song titles will take you to Spotify. ❤

#1. I Break Horses — “I Live At Night” (from Warnings)

Backed by slow-going percussion and swimming in synth, “I Live At Night” begins with a confession: 

I often tremble with the truth

I’m almost always out of use

The emotions don’t build and explode, however—vocalist Maria Lindén maintains a cool and serene composure, her vocals light, airy, yielding to a one-string guitar riff that curves throughout the track. There’s enough reverb to bathe in, and when the song ends, you’ll want to jump back in for a soak.

#2. Fiona Apple — “I Want You to Love Me” (from Fetch the Bolt Cutters)

Released in April of 2020, Fetch the Bolt Cutters seemed to be the album most of my music-loving friends gravitated toward during quarantine. “I Want You to Love Me” is only one word away from being the title of a Cheap Trick hit, but Apple’s lyrics are unavoidably salient, relevant, begging you to pay attention:

And I know none of this will matter in the long run

But I know a sound is still a sound around no one

And while I’m in this body / I want somebody to want

In an interview, she explains these lines: “I exist whether or not you see me. These things about me are true whether or not you acknowledge them.” Two minutes and seventeen seconds in, the drums flutter, the bass thumps alongside her thundering voice, which now no longer sounds as sweet, yet remains just as vulnerable.

#3. Mourn — “This Feeling is Disgusting” (from Self Worth)

From Spain, Mourn was formed by a small group of high schoolers, now grown up and a band of three young women. I stumbled upon their self-titled debut a few years ago, and every release since then has been solid and consistent. I’m a bit tempted to compare them to Sleater-Kinney, but that feels lazy. Mourn does write catchy post-punk, and their harmonies are pleasing and pair nicely with their feverish guitarwork, but they are something all their own. “This Feeling is Disgusting” is one of their poppiest tracks, and opens their latest release, Self Worth.

#4. Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion — “WAP

Who hasn’t yet heard the clip of Cardi B shouting, “Coronavirus!”? It became a 2020 slogan, a meme, a viral sensation (no pun intended), and eventually, a remix that made it onto the Billboard charts. Likewise, Cardi B’s music tends to inhabit her boisterous ego and spunky personality. “WAP” is no different, and chances are you are familiar with the acronym, and if it offends you, well, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion don’t have time for your shit. Yes, it’s a sexually explicit song, and yes, its themes come with an adult rating. But the two are having fun here, rapping about their proclivities, exploits they demand on their terms. In fact, the most offensive thing about this song is its video, specifically the scene where a certain white woman—whose family is known for siphoning off Black culture from the masses and injecting it into their bodies and bank accounts—sashays down a gleaming hallway. But I digress. “WAP” is entertaining, it’s buoyant, and it’s addictive. It passes its own kind of Bechdel test, one where two women sing explicitly about sex in total absence of a male voice.

#5. PJ Harvey — “Meet Ze Monsta — Demo” (from To Bring You My Love — Demos)

It’s difficult for me to think of PJ Harvey’s 1995 album, To Bring You My Love, without envisioning her sleek black hair, eyelashes thick and long like spider legs, swipes of electric-blue shadow across her eyelids. Which is why I love the stripped-down demo of “Meet Ze Monsta.” She’s equally great in both the demo and the album cut, but it’s a treat to hear an in-the-studio peek at what these tracks sounded like before their final polish. The track opens with a burst of ’80s-sounding drums, playful and biting, a welcome mat to Harvey’s rollicking guitar and raw vocals. 

#6. Young Fathers — “Toy” (from Cocoa Sugar)

Okay, technically this album was released in 2018, but I only discovered it last year. The rhythm in “Toy” is needling, uncomfortable. It maintains an energetic trot as we as listeners run to keep up with singer Alloysious Massaquoi:

I’m chasing shadows in the gallows

Collecting what was stolen from me

From Scotland, Young Fathers have garnered critical acclaim since their 2014 debut album, Dead. The title of 2018’s Cocoa Sugar, they explain, is “an amalgamation of how we see the world.” Amalgamation is right: The album showcases their unique style of electronica, rap, hip-hop, and vocal arrangements that are nothing short of extraordinary.

#7. Stuck — “Invisible Wall” (from Change is Bad)

Sometimes, you need a punch in the gut. “Invisible Wall” is just that in sonic form, a post-punk romp with drums recorded to perfection and a blast of guitars you can feel in your chest. The lyrics are disjointing, a sense of violence lurking around the corner:

One more invisible wall

Thrown up against the edge

I feel its power flex

When I first heard this song on KXLU, I was certain it came from a band on the now-defunct SST Records label, but no, while Stuck’s aesthetic has a familiar dissonance that reminds me a bit of Polvo and Shellac, Change is Bad is the band’s debut album. And clocking in at twenty-nine minutes, it’s a quick and blood-pumping listen.

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