Things to Do When You Can’t Do Many Things: #2, 20 Great Songs from 2020

by Darren Clarke, February 25, 2020

“Do you ever feel… do you ever feel like, you are living your life but you are barely there?”

I don’t know how we’ll end up looking back on 2020. It was so many things in excess- darkness, light and a daily, blurring, boring, beige. The music from the year though was wonderful. There are lots of folks to thank for their work during this pandemic and musicians should be front and centre in that group for delivering so much to feed our souls during this time. Be it travelling to the supermarket in our cars, out for runs, bouncing around the kitchen making supper, dancing around the house cleaning, or simply chilling on the couch, music has given us so much so easily.

The music released in 2020 specifically offered diversity, being varyingly funky, infectious, restless, relentless, groovy, dreamy. While the offerings are not free of the doubt we find ourselves immersed in, that doubt is accompanied more by profound framing than hopelessness and beyond the doubt there is daring and there is defiance.

Let’s start though with dreamy though. Dreamy and a bit uncertain. Gia Margaret considering feeling barely there.

The pandemic in America coincided with the need for good people to rise up and contest the continued, deeply rooted, ongoing history of prejudice and violence against black people. That any of us was shocked by the most recent examples of callous disregard for black lives was all you need to know about White Entitlement.

For me, the Spring and Summer of 2020 was humbling in terms of reminding me how woefully undereducated I was in terms of the racial realities in America, in Canada, in the world. But here’s to humility, here’s to learning. Here’s to Black Lives Matter.

Here’s to Anderson .Paak.

I found myself digging into post-punk a ton this past year, so- Joy Division, Duruuti Column, Gang of Four, Young Marble Giants, Wire, My Bloody Valenine, Pylon, etc. Post-punk seemed particularly well suited at channeling 2020s’ zeitgeist given its’ ability to tap into feeling profound and pent up.

Profound and pent up is a pretty good description of Fontaines DC.

Sault provided 2020 with two brilliant albums. The opening track from the Untitled (Rise) Strong is so much of what is great about the band. It is as elusive as it is delicious. The band itself doesn’t interact with the media so who they are, what they are, is a mystery in a post-Google world wildly lacking in such whimsically nebulous entities.

“No is the greatest resistance, No to the nothing existence.”

Billy Nomates No flips the idea of the word No as device that limits experience to explore its’ most freeing possibilities telling NME, “From the minute I started saying ‘no’ to stuff, doors started opening. It sounds really negative, but to me it was a really positive find. ‘No, I don’t want to do that’: there’s a power to it. If you learn to say ‘no’, it gets somebody’s attention. In a world of yes men, I’ll be a no woman, thanks.”

This is my album of 2020, Sweeping Promises, Hunger for a Way Out. It could be from most any decade but it’s kind of perfect that it is from the here and now. The review by Taylor Ruckle in Post Trash nails Sweeping Promises infectiousness, timelessness and their unique energy, Sweeping Promises, is idiosyncratic in the (brilliant) extreme; recorded, as the Bandcamp description notes, in an unused concrete laboratory using a proprietary “single-mic technique,” it’s set in a sonic world all its own. All it takes to get you there is that first cymbal crash and a half-strangled guitar lick, but it spends ten solid tracks drawing you further in, as they boil new-wave neuroticism down to a science–and they make it so much fun.”

Mercy this is a great band. Everybody should know who Holy Fuck is. Most everybody doesn’t though. This is vibrant, funky, layered, sometimes lounging, sometimes bounding but always exploring and playing with the balance between frosting and cake to engage your sweet tooth- This is pure damned magic.

Welland, Ontario’s finest- Daniel Romano. If I get a do over on album of the year- the Daniel Romano’s Outfit, How Ill Thy World is Ordered, might get me to change my vote. Daniel Romano’s musical cup runneth over and if you are unfamiliar with the man and his music boy am I excited about the rich world that awaits you. How Ill Thy World is Odered is Romano’s master stroke to date though as he fully realizes his ability to capture any number of different influences and imbue them with his own particular energy and intellect. This is truly brilliant stuff. And please, please, if you’re looking for a song to listen to after A Rat Without a Tale do yourself a favour and check out the song Amaretto and Coke next.

There’s a quote from writer Gina Arnold that I cannot find online so you are going to have to do with a half-remembered paraphrase. Essentially it was that on the surface, on paper, there is little difference between Herman’s Hermits and the Beatles but the difference in how the music impacts you is EVERYTHING. And yeah, it’s often in the margins, in the nuances and inflection that the separation between the fabulous and the average happens. Here, in between the lines, the kind of deft, seemingly effortless, magic, supplied by Lianne La Havas will leave your senses weightless, warm and blissful.

For me much of 2020 was spent diving into music from different eras, particularly the 70s, for my Left Field Lark Podcast. Catching up with 2020’s current musical offerings against that backdrop made for noting some substantial differences. First and foremost, there’s way more woman involved in music. And more than ever nobody talks about it because, praise the Lord, we are actually evolving. So, sorry for mentioning it but I just found it pretty damned exciting. The men and women in Ganser dive into the diverse the dissociative, bending and sparking the music they offer for a wild ride that, for all its’ eccentricities, is still pretty darned catchy.

Ohmme’s Fantasize Your Ghost album would be in my 2020 top five. The album is often completely entrancing. The surface simplicity of Ohmme’s music is beguilingly captivating allowing for its more complex undertones to weave intricate webs of feeling to linger with you long after the music has stopped.

Sometimes if there is going to be words in a song I just ask that they be in a language I don’t understand. Melanas 2020 album Dias Raros provides me with a break from the limits of words and understanding and offers what David Wilikofsky of Post Trash neatly described as, “The music here is effervescent and full of an energy that transcends linguistic boundaries, taking us on a trip through indie pop history; because of all the references you can pick out, it feels like both an old favorite and a new discovery. As I listened to Dias Raros the other day while cooking in my kitchen, I found myself dancing around the apartment without even realizing it. The joy in this album is palpable and infectious. It’s easily one of the best albums released so far this year, and it’s going to be a hard one to top.”

It’s amazing the things that get lost over time, buried in our memories beneath cute anecdotes, emotional weights, and the vagaries of living you know, life. One of the things I remembered while digging into the 70s was the boundless amount of melancholy attached to country music playing during that era in weird, random, spots. Spots like, random restaurants (with place mat menus) that you stopped in when travelling to your vacation destination or, garage bays at the mechanics, the country crooning emitting from a tiny, dirty, AM radio on a tool shelf in the corner of the room. Those kind of random places.

Honey Haper delivers that specific genre of music to you in the here and now wrapped in the sweetest nostalgia for you to dig into at your leisure.

Lizzie Manno, Paste Magazine, “It’s not just sonic flare that sets them apart: They bring their fair share of lyrical magnetism, too. “Yr Old Dad” centers on a father who’s either literally withering away, emotionally absent or perhaps both. In any case, it’s not exactly an expected subject to pair with a perky pop song. “Your old dad is dying / He said son I’m growing old / ‘Cause your mother can’t stop crying / And your girlfriend has two homes,” sings McCrory over handclaps and gloriously flamed-out guitars—anyone who thinks they’ve lost interest in guitar solos should tune into Andrew MacPherson’s absolutely sublime shrieks on this track.”

Squirrel Flower’s guitar playing is a spring road trip. It’s not in a hurry, it’s wet, it’s warming up but still playing it cool, and it gives you lots of space to conider what else she has to offer, what else you have to offer, what lies between all our offers. It’s simple, it’s profound, the more attention you give it, the more it gives you.

Sometime I love a song just because I know my wife will love it. Lake Song is precisely one of those songs.

There’s something off kilter at first listen with Marlowe. In this case though that’s the first indication of carrying so much to love. The more you listen the more you reap the rewards. As HHGA put it, “L’Orange’s trademark psychedelic, dusty, lo-fi, boom-bap instrumentals laced with obscure samples are as strong as ever, and Solemn Brigham has something distinctive that sets him apart from other emcees – an erratic one-of-a-kind type flow that perfectly matches the strange atmosphere set by L’Orange’s production.

On a straight up- “Pick one damned song that makes you really happy from 2020!” basis, this is it baby, this is it.

I could tell you about my feelings for Special Interest but really, somebody has already shared their feelings about Special Interest’s 2020 album in such a spectacular manner, I’m just going to give the floor to him. So, here’s Jeff Terich from Treble with part of his fantastic breakdown, “Everything about Special Interest is intended to challenge perceptions. A 2020 counterpoint to 1982’s prominently straight, white, male hardcore punk standard, Special Interest’s second album The Passion Of is a radical statement that lives up to the urgency its title connotes. Every track feels either like a cycle through the mosh pit or an intoxicated, sweaty night at the disco—it even kicks off with a track titled “Disco III” (the third in a series that began with “Disco I” and “Disco II” on debut album Spiraling)—and there’s a constant push and pull between observations on a broken America and more personal reflections of sexuality. Theirs is a balance not unlike Sheer Mag’s binary of songs of revolution and love, only delivered through a queer, POC lens. And much, much more aggressive.”

I’ll end this group of songs with Roisin Murphy’s contagious Murphy’s Law and a snippet from the excellent Bill Pearis’s review in Brooklyn Vegan about Murphy’s 2020 album, “Róisín Machine is bold and brash, slinky and sexy, and a whole lot of fun, swathed in strings, funky Chic guitars, popping bass, cosmic synths and Murphy’s still powerful pipes. It’s got all four of Murphy’s excellent singles with Parrot from the last 12 months — “Incapable,” “Narcissus,” “Something More,” and “Murphy’s Law” — plus another six where those came from that are just as good.

And hey, 20 songs isn’t really enough is it? You want more? Here’s you go, here’s these 20 and 33 more. Enjoy.