40.

Protomartyr – “Worm in Heaven”

[Domino]

Detroit (post-)punks Protomartyr released their fifth album Ultimate Success Today earlier this year, and “Worm in Heaven” was among the preceding teasers. It surprised fans of the band with its rather slow rhythm and soft arrangement that’s on display for a good three quarters of the track. The lamenting lyrics are another feature of the song that came as something unexpected; “Worm in Heaven” seems to lack the witty lyricism, piercing vocals, and the aggressive style of playing of the band’s previous works, but it offers something else — development.

It is undoubtedly a move in a new direction when a Protomartyr song (even lyrically) sounds as if Nick Cave collaborated with Interpol’s Daniel Kessler, and it’s certainly intriguing to hear the band trying on a new outfit. But, so that the listener doesn’t forget who they are, Protomartyr go for a cathartic noisy ending, in which the fans recognize the band that they fell in love with on their previous albums. “Worm in Heaven” is the closing track of their latest LP, which, although unorthodox for them, was certainly the right composition to finish an album titled Ultimate Success Today.Aleksandr Smirnov


39.

Rina Sawayama – “Chosen Family”

[Dirty Hit]

There are a few tearjerker moments on Rina Sawayama’s incredible debut album SAWAYAMA, but none as incredibly warm and uniting as “Chosen Family”. A mid-tempo ballad with an inspired combination of bubblegum synths, piano and guitar that culminate in an overall country vibe, it shows that even on the slower tracks Rina can always add her idiosyncratic flourishes. The lyrics, however, are what make this song an emotional standout, as it tackles the outdated notion that family is determined by shared genetic material. This particularly resonates with LGBTQI+ people, who have been ostracised or cast out by relations. It’s a song that simultaneously acknowledges this pain and prejudice while letting her fans (dubbed Pixels) know that family doesn’t mean flesh and blood, but rather who loves and supports them unconditionally. As Rina sings “So what if we don’t look the same? / We’ve been going through the same thing,” it emphasises how true human connection forms through shared experiences and empathy. Coming from someone who designed wristbands specifically for fans who attend her concerts alone so that they can potentially meet and develop friendships with other solo attendees, “Chosen Family” allows Rina’s sincerity to shine even brighter. – JT Early


38.

Waxahatchee – “Lilacs”

[Merge]

Overcoming addiction is one of the hardest things a person will ever do. Many people fail. Those who succeed in weening themselves from one vice often times trade it for another – sometimes a worse one. Katie Crutchfield knew the repercussions of quitting alcohol when she undertook this task, but with the help of her partner – fellow indie rocker Kevin Morby – Crutchfield stands before us today with a renewed sense of purpose and value, all established by herself and no one else.

All of Waxahatchee‘s new record Saint Cloud reflects on these detours and demons, but “Lilacs” is that reaffirmation that you’ve done the right thing, and you did it for the most important person in your life – yourself. Crutchfield’s touched on this dependency throughout her career – every Waxahatchee record shows it, and even those early P.S. Eliot records reference it. For a while it was how she characterized herself, but Saint Cloud exposes her in such a profound way that those instances no longer matter, and what we have instead is way more rewarding.

“Lilacs” shows Crutchfield’s relentless improvement plan, telling us that even once you’ve reached your goal you have to keep it at it. She knows that every day for the rest of her life there will be those temptations, but she loves herself. “Lilacs” isn’t about flowers, it’s about depending on yourself to pull through something as taxing as addiction. When she says “I won’t end up anywhere good without you,” she’s telling the truth. None of us will end up in a good place if we can’t rely on ourselves. If there’s a moment on Saint Cloud that should speak to anyone struggling with addiction or self-worth, it’s unquestionably “Lilacs”. – Tim Sentz


37.

Halsey – “More”

[Capitol]

Listening through Halsey’s new album Manic, you might not initially think twice about “More”. A soaring chorus of “I want you more / somehow I just want you more” sounds like a pretty run-of-the-mill song of yearning heartache for someone she’s attracted to, but a proper listen to “More” reveals that there is well, a lot more to it.

In fact, the bare sonic approach should clue you in initially. This is not a sweeping ballad, but a song whose production could be described as minimal – clinical, even, given that it finds her in and out of waiting rooms, lying awake at night reflecting on words from sorry doctors telling her “it’s useless / there’s no hope in store.”

See, “More” is a tale of Halsey’s struggles with conceiving and carrying a baby to term, something she’s evidently tried and failed to do repeatedly. Despite the repeated warnings and failures, she can’t let go of her deepest human desire: “somehow I still want you more.” Enwrapped in this majestically brave song are plenty of signs that Halsey would indeed make a great parent: “I’ve loved you for all of my life / and nothing could stop me from giving it a try,” she admits. “More” might be less than three minutes long, but few listening experiences comprise such an outpouring of tears – for listener and singer alike – and as it makes its final guttural plea, replete with the plinks of a baby’s mobile, there’s nothing anybody could want more than for Halsey to get her wish. Let’s hope that somehow, some way, it happens for her and her future child. – Rob Hakimian


36.

Conway & The Alchemist – “Calvin”

[ALC]

Menace is the name of the game. Considering just how banner of a year The Alchemist had, from The Price of Tea in China to Alfredo, it’s understandable that the comparatively bite-sized LULU was a tad lost in the shuffle. But that’s a shame, as the ever-reliable producer’s first full-length linkup with a core Griselda member, after numerous appearances on their albums, is a stunner in its own right.

Conway’s gruff flow is the perfect complement to the handful of beats, and “Calvin” is no doubt the highlight among them. Much like the shark-laden album art, the track couldn’t be more ominous, with stuttering keys and a drumbeat as rough as sandpaper. Conway, for his part, absolutely consumes the track, opting for a darkly laidback flow, practically muttering “I’ve seen it a lot,” throughout the hook. Seen what, precisely? With that tone of voice, you needn’t ask. You’ll be afraid to. – Chase McMullen


35.

HA:TFELT – “3mins”

[Amoeba Culture]

“3mins” actually clocks in at just under four minutes, but you can forgive Park Ye-eun aka HA:TFELT for not being exact with her timing, given how much she’s had to deal with. Known as “Yeeun” during her time with the Wonder Girls, the exciting news of her becoming Amoeba Culture’s first female solo artist in more than a decade was overshadowed by devastating personal news. Two months prior, her father, a pastor, had been sentenced to six years in prison for swindling his congregants. Not only that, but he’d also been accused of sexual assault. In the K-pop world, a place where an artist’s right to privacy is taken even less seriously than it is in the Western world, Ye-eun was under the harshest of spotlights.

She’s not hiding on “3mins”. Pleading to a lover (played by South Korean rapper Choiza), Ye-eun sings in both Korean and English, begging them to not give up on her. The minimal R&B production and Ye-eun’s breathy vocals – sometimes hinting at a major crescendo but staying in a somber pocket – keep things focused on her and her feelings, sometimes painfully so. She might be addressing a partner, but “3mins” could also be read as her speaking to her audience. She knows we know her troubles, but she’s not going to let them define her. – Brody Kenny


34.

Them Airs – “Reception Desk”

[Self-released]

Sure, everyone’s dreaming of a return to normal, white-collar office life included. But how amazing was it, really? Them Airs pose this question on “Reception Desk”, a brilliant post-punk track that reminds listeners of the bloodlessness of the ubiquitous daily routine. “Strut into the office with that great big suit / Feel that stark fluorescent lighting” Cade Williams and company sing mockingly: office observations are marked with disdain and inflated self-importance is put in perspective. “That picture that you Xeroxed / It’s sure to last forever,” they later taunt, followed by all-too-familiar beratings. “Correction, correction, correction / Get it out of my sight.”

The song takes a turn in its final third, where the members harmonize over a scrappy pleading melody and distorted guitars. “Please tell me we’re more than just oxygen,” they beg again and again. The song is easily the most accessible track on Union Suit XL, but that doesn’t take away from its warnings; upon release in January, “Reception Desk” played like satire, but now the song acts more like a cautionary tale of a return to normal. We are, indeed, more than oxygen. – Carlo Thomas


33.

Kid Cudi & Eminem – “The Adventures of Moon Man & Slim Shady”

[Republic]

When Kid Cudi tweeted out a simple, “Rap God, help!,” towards none other than Eminem, reactions were mixed. The stans were elated, of course, but there was undeniably something of a collective groan. However, as soon as it arrived, “The Adventures of Moon Man & Slim Shady” outdid all expectations, simply by nature of being a (gasp) workmanlike, relatively understated collaboration.

That’s right, for the first time in years, Marshall Mathers drops nearly all the theatrics, opting instead for a laidback flow and timely, to the point rhymes. He addresses COVID (“I just used the same basket as you shopping / Now I’m in a fuckin’ casket from you coughin’”), Trumpism, life in quarantine, police brutality, and, yes, essentially makes the song his own. The single leaves us wanting something most never imagined from a meeting of Cudi and the ageing legend: more. – Chase McMullen


32.

James Blake – “Do You Ever”

[Polydor]

The dissolution of a long-term relationship is never easy, regardless of whether you’re the instigator or the, uh, instigated upon. Even if you’re certain of moving on, in general, or to something ‘better’ (you jerk, you), wistful thoughts will no doubt come back to your love lost, some time or another.

Such emotions are James Blake‘s bread and butter, so it’s not surprising he ended up releasing “Do You Ever”, but what is surprising is that it ranks among his very most effective (and affecting) ballads. “Do you ever think about me?” may not be a novel thought, but Blake’s words hit with passion. However it’s a yet more human notion that truly hits home: “In my slideshows, you come off so well, better than I ever remember.” Doesn’t she, though? “I wanted the two seat version / …I thought there was more.” You just had to take that leap, didn’t you? God help him. God help us all. – Chase McMullen


31.

Jessi – “Nunu Nana”

[P Nation]

Jessi is badassery incarnate. The New Jersey-raised, Korea-based star absolutely keeps her American upbringing close to heart, with a supersized attitude that’s often just too damn big for her small stage. Having lived in-country for nearly six years now, this writer can’t truly express just what Jessi means to Korean culture, particularly women, but suffice to say her lack of ability to take any shit is more than a breath of fresh air; it’s practically a triumphant gasp after a marathon swim. Recently chatting with a coworker (and local) about her laptop stickers, three of which were of Jessi, she simply stated, “Because she’s so un-Korean.” In a culture that expects deference, especially from women, Jessi’s constant blunt honesty and loud-mouthed feminism are seen as veritable attacks by some, and as prized blows to many more.

“Nunu Nana” is among the most explicit statements her actual music has made in this direction thus far, with Jessi flipping 누나  – or ‘nuna’, a typical Korean honorific for ‘older sister’ – into a bombastic display of just how far she’s willing to go to get what’s hers. The beat is among the very best in Korean rap this year, hell, in any country’s rap, and Jessi absolutely dominates it, flipping seamlessly between braggadocious flows and the expected sing-song nature of K-pop. In the video, she’s even joined by none other than Hyori Lee – the original femme fatale of K-pop – signalling what fans have known for years: this is Jessi’s world. – Chase McMullen


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