#40 It’s Not Always Funny – Devendra Banhart
EP: Vast Ovoid
Released: July 16, 2020
It’s Not Always Funny captures something that is entirely under discussed in the artistic world: wryness. Picture that look in the supermarket aisles when you attempt to make way for an elderly lady and end up knocking some Lavazza coffee on the floor with your movements before giving her an awkward chuckle as you both go to pick it up; of course, both your smiles are covered with fabric, but they haven’t gone away. 2020 wasn’t particularly amusing, but it gave rise to moments of ungainliness that give one faith in Banhart’s words: “it’s not always funny, baby, but I hope you don’t mind when I say that it sure is sometimes.”
#39 In The Spirit – Kahil El’Zabar, David Murray
EP: Kahil El’Zabar’s Spirit Groove
Released: Jun 12, 2020
Legendary jazz multi-instrumentalist Kahil El’Zabar had a prolific year as indeed he has had a prolific career. In the Spirit is spiritual soul-jazz of the highest quality, evoking the sleekness of Roy Ayers alongside David Murray’s own free-playing tenor sax. At five minutes long, the track, incidentally, the shortest on the record, feels like the album’s crucial interlude: the moment that El’Zabar wants us to hear. It is plain to see why, with its softer notes and transcendent lyrics: “in the spirit, let your mind and your body hear it.”
#38 Kane Train – Machinedrum, Freddie Gibbs
Album: A View of U
Released: 9 Oct, 2020
Fortunately for the ears of the world, the best rapper in the game happens to be one of the most prolific. Pinata (2014) and Bandana (2019), historic collaborations between Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, were two of the finest albums in a decade that saw the staggering rise of trap and the all-time classic To Pimp a Butterfly (2015). Alongside the excellent Alfredo LP with the Alchemist, 2020 saw a number of top tier features from the Indiana-born Gibbs: $500 Ounces on Westside Gunn’s solid Pray For Paris record and 9 to 5 for the Adam Snow single were the highlights. The headliner was undoubtedly Kane Train: a brief but slamming track that provides some of Gibbs’ best ever flow over an unusual, astonishing beat. In fact, this “beat” alone does not sound as though it will be rapped over, certainly not kept up with. Nonetheless, Gibbo defines ‘killing it,’ for just over a couple of minutes with palpable capability and swagger.
One of the year’s most unexpected collaborations, Kane Train provides a challenge for Machinedrum, whose house/drum and bass roots were not necessarily intended for Gibbs’ gangster rap. However, as seen by December’s A$AP Ferg remix of Star, the new frontier is now well-acquainted with the producer’s distinctive style and his avid listeners will look back on Kane Train as the finest example of this strange and wonderful coalition.
#37 Walking Flames – Actress, Sampha
Album: Karma & Desire
Released: Oct 23, 2020
Acclaimed techno producer and former West Bromwich Albion youth talent, Darren J. Cunningham (known publicly as Actress) delivered one of the year’s most stunning electronic sounds on Walking Flames. Through ethereal production and the delicate tones of Sampha’s vocals, Cunningham constructs a track that marries Kid A-era Radiohead with early Aphex Twin: play Everything in its Right Place by the former at the same time as Avril 14th by the latter and you get a beautiful follow up track. The artist said of Karma & Desire that it is “a romantic tragedy set between the heavens and underworld.” Walking Flames is very definitely on the heavenly side, in more ways than one.
#36 Fall Please – Tricky, Marta
Album: Fall to Pieces
Released: Jun 11, 2020
Massive Attack’s Tricky endured the worst imaginable pain when he lost his daughter in June of last year. Inevitably, Fall To Pieces has its difficult moments, particularly the wrenching Hate This Pain and the bleak Like a Stone. His poppiest cut (maybe ever?) is the fantastic Fall Please, which contains Marta’s gorgeous vocal subtlety, shimmering over the typically ripping bass lines of Tricky’s trip-hop home.
#35 WAKING UP DOWN – Yaeji
Album: WHAT WE DREW
Released: Apr 2, 2020
Korean-American producer Yaeji released her first full-length mixtape in early 2020 to widespread acclaim. WAKING UP DOWN is probably its danciest track, with the stunning synth intro laying the foundations for choppy drums and a laid-back vocal performance. The opening lyrics cover something that may feel very familiar: trying to push oneself into a routine to combat the messiness within. When singing in English, the artist discusses her order like a trophy, before, in Korean, highlighting the various patterns as ripostes to her natural state of doubt and indecision. It is difficult to tell if Yaeji is indeed winning this war and the track’s inner confusion under its own electronic undulation is captivating.
#34 So Humble the Afternoon – Julia Holter
Released: Oct 12, 2020
Julia Holter’s discography has always glowed with her divine vocals and dreamlike instrumentation. 2015’s Have You In My Wilderness comprised some of the decade’s most lavish, heavenly tracks, in particular the awe-inducing Vazquez. Typical of her style, Holter’s 2020 release is as atmospheric as ever, buoyed by throbbing synth timbres and hazy, bittersweet tones. According to the artist, these elements “were a comforting foundation for me to sing over, to soften the harshness of the afternoon which always feels to me like the least introspective and most alienating part of the day.”
#33 Cold – Chris Stapleton
Album: Starting Over
Released: Nov 13, 2020
Arguably country music’s most capable vocalist, Chris Stapleton produces an aching love song that utilises orchestral, jazzy elements as the background to his wonderful singing. It is a track, a story, and a performance that country listeners might have heard hundreds of times, but rarely will they have heard it done so competently. Stapleton takes what could have been a good song and renders it great through a clean structure and fresh production.
#32 How Long ‘til We’re Home – Ego Ella May
Album: Honey For Wounds
Released: Mar 4, 2020
In 2020, Ego Ella May fulfilled the promise of her early features that evaded her debut album So Far (2019). Throughout the record, she sings and constructs with a rare sense of patience that adds weight to her zeitgeisty lyrics. How Long ‘til We’re Home speaks to us with that familiar sense of weariness that was the comic undercurrent of the year itself. The opening line “breaking news at 6 pm, disappointed by government” will feel so instantly recognisable that you might not even notice it passing through your ears. Interestingly, this song was released prior to any national lockdown but Ella May nonetheless manages to illustrate a future, riddled with bewilderment and longing.
#31 Foi Batendo o Pé Na Terra – Kiko Dinucci
Released: 21 Jan, 2020
Much unlike the rotting fruit on its cover (incidentally one of the coolest sleeves of the year) Kiko Dinucci and his picky guitar sound garden-fresh on this excellent LP. Rastilho was recorded on an analog tape with a view to recreating the sounds of Brazilian records from the ‘60s and ‘70s; the vibrant energy of the songs themselves help to fulfill this. Foi Batendo o Pé Na Terra is one of the lighter tracks here, but still utilises Dinucci’s aggressive guitar playing in its breaks. In Kiko’s words, “As a child, I treated [the guitar] as a toy. In my teens, with my guitar patched with pieces of sellotape, I tried to reproduce heavy rock riffs whilst finding inspiration in the Afro works of Baden Powell.” Resting on the shoulders of Brazil’s musical giants, the artist carves out his own unique composing and places it neatly amongst the best.
#30 Notte a Pretoria – Volantis
Released: Sept 30, 2020
Through worldly rhythms and a range of instrumentation, Notte a Pretoria manages to secure an instant sense of travel: something in the constantly changing tones, tempos, and grooves lends itself to exploration. Volantis never provides that moment on this track; no drop, or irresistible hook. Instead, he creates a journey of keys and synths that lead us through multiple facets of his own production. He does so through the sensory warmth of his tone and by the end of the track we are disciples of his sublime vibes.
#29 Secretary – Identified Patient
EP: Nerve Deposit
Released: Sept 21, 2020
Identified Patient is a techno producer/DJ whose work has inspired the kind of manic sense of freedom that leads people to forget where who or, even what they are. Okay, maybe not, but watch his Boiler Room set (Identified Patient | Boiler Room x Dekmantel Festival 2018 – YouTube) and see how both the crowd and the man himself react to his switch ups: it is the bstuff that only the heaviest of music could induce. Secretary is a snippet of the raw emotion that bass-heavy electronic tunes can provoke: a brutal, beautiful, bashing track that almost leaves a hangover in its wake. This is not for the faint-hearted, but most definitely for anyone who likes to take a plunge when they put their headphones on.
#28 WAP – Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion
Released: Aug 3, 2020
The year’s most discussed track has led to any number of memorable moments: everyone’s favourite, of course, was Ben Shapiro’s bizarre suggestion that a WAP is symptomatic of some sort of vaginal infection. Evidently, the track holds a kind of exposing quality that made the more sexually latent question what they knew about women and the world. Far more importantly, WAP, in its uncompromising nature, highlighted hip-hop’s burgeoning relationship with sex from the female perspective. In 2002, My Neck, My Back was the vicious rebuttal of rap’s insistence on discussing the inimitable strength of the phallus over the capability of the WAP to disarm it. Eighteen years later, it is the Marx to WAP’s Lenin, having demonstrated and delineated the ways in which women could popularise talk of sex in an unabashed manner. The arrival of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s modern classic represents a new dawn for popular music: one that will make some men shuffle nervously, as others embark or continue a journey of embrace. In any case, the quality of the music cannot be ignored: ripping bars, throbbing bass, and shrewd sampling combine to make a song that focuses on emancipation rather than overwhelming self-consciousness and deference: that is a tune we can all dance to.
#27 I Wanna Be a Cowboy, Baby! – CMAT
Released: Oct 1, 2020
Dublin folk singer CMAT’s charming single wins points for being simultaneously bizarre and strikingly simple. This track is pure enjoyment and, despite being over 5 minutes long, feels neither dragged nor insistent. If we give the artist songwriting credit, and I think we should, this song is about wanting a level of freedom and self-governance that has evaded many of 2020’s unfortunate population. Further, it is about having the resources to do more with your life, yet choosing not to do so out of anxiety and/or ambivalence. CMAT simply wants the assurance of a life carved out: in this snapshot, that of a cowboy on his way to the rodeo.
#26 Dusk – Alice Phoebe Lou
Released: Dec 4, 2020
Marking a break from her two other singles from 2020—Touch and Witches—Alice Phoebe Lou’s final track of the year slid coolly into jazzy pianos and steady drum beats. The song reflects the simplicity of companionship in love; be that amorous or simply the kind that suffuses a close friendship. In any interpretation, it is about lifting one another up; maintaining that transportive quality that soothes and mollifies. Dusk holds the same lustre as any Phoebe Lou track, with the added excitement of a new direction that will hopefully define her next LP release.
#25 Summertime – Charlotte Day Wilson
Released: Aug 13, 2020
Every function of this song is performing at a wafer thin intensity: the vocals are breathy and without a single crease; the guitars are gentle support actors; the production is unobtrusive. These elements come together for the pre-choral melody, which ends up being pretty close to mellow perfection. It carries the same wistful disappointment as the lyrics themselves: see “old enough to see this isn’t what it seems like.” Wilson creates a track that is filled with emotion without overstating her points or over-indulging in her stunning melodic sounds. Instead, the artist opts to retain that soft, understated rhythm, and the song is better for its restraint.
#24 Silk Rock – Marker Starling
Released: Sept 3, 20
Toronto’s Chris A. Cummings demonstrates his musical ability through the mediums of the Wurlitzer, the Philicorda organ, and the Moog—to say nothing of his effortless 70s croon. Silk Rock has the immaculate musicianship of a Steely Dan record, with the crisp tempo of the best of Stereolab: it flows gently while keeping faith in an extremely satisfying and unerring riff. Quite simply, one of the best soul-jazz tracks of the year.
#23 Can You – Park Hye Jin
Album: How Can I
Released: Jun 26, 20
Following up from an acclaimed house EP in 2018, Seoul-raised producer and DJ Park Hye Jin took on far more on How Can I, making use of the best of techno, rap, and juke. Can You is the most complete display of her talents: Hye Jin’s waveless vocals tell a story of their own—one that is already evidenced by the repetitions of “can you be my babe?” and, later, “I love you and I fucking hate you.” The ethereal sounds on this track are similarly conflicting, with the soft synth melodies rising above the clouds of percussion and once again invoking a sense of both love and hate masterfully.
#22 Hindsight – Madison McFerren
Released: Dec 3, 2020
Madison McFerren begins this self-produced track with her fingers capering elegantly along the piano. It is a strikingly soft introduction to a song that will later become imbued with percussion from Louis Cato and wails from the singer herself. Where much of the success of 2020’s music came through experimentation and innovation, Hindsight is a reminder of that which stays timeless. In its simplicity, McFerren achieves absolute soul bliss.
#21 they told us it was hard, but they were wrong. – Ela Minus
EP: acts of rebellion
Released: Oct 23, 2020
“they told us” is an extremely reflective dance cut. Crafted solely from hardware synthesizer, Minus creates a thrashing track that is doubtlessly inspired by her hardcore background. It captures its own title perfectly; the sounds of empowerment and self-belief coincide with the lyrics “If you have to go to the bottom of a hole to find what’s wrong, Just let it go…When you love, you love it all, and nothing is impossible.” Minus seeks to shorten the gap between thought and action, in which there often lies a kind of pointless deliberation. This is incidentally well-suited to the nature of dance music itself. Each moment on the track contains its own unique feeling of contemplation and tduiwwbtww will bring these home through a kaleidoscopic reel in your mind.