Touché Amoré – “Reminders”
Los Angeles-based post-hardcore quintet Touché Amoré‘s latest offering Lament was a suitably intense exploration of the rippling effects of grief and loss, but right at its heart lies three minutes of sheer catharsis in the form of “Reminders”. Capturing the band at their most streamlined and accessible, it’s one of the album’s most surprising curveballs, brewing up a maelstrom that the band’s leader Jeremy Bolm finds himself right at the centre of, his anxieties in plain sight. Swept along by Elliot Babin’s forceful drums and an instantly memorable melody, Bolm’s state of overwhelm is palpable, both in his voice and his outlook on a “world collapsing with complacency / to knee-jerk takes and fantasy.” He collects himself for the song’s triumphant chorus, however: a note both to self and to the listener to stay grounded when it all seems too much, something which resonates in this turbulent year. Reminders of the love we have – good or bad – are undeniably important. Exuberant gang vocals? Check. A reunion with Julien Baker? Check. A pet-filled video with a staggering list of cameos? You better believe that’s a check. If Lament did its best to navigate in darkness, then “Reminders” provided the necessary light. – Gareth O’Malley
IZ*ONE – “Dreamlike”
[Stone Music Entertainment]
IZ*ONE’s songs in general possess an aura of the fantastical and whimsical, yet there is something particularly wondrous about “Dreamlike”, from their incredible album BLOOM*IZ. Occupying a space at the intersection between their cute and elegant sounds, the song is a chill and unremittingly romantic track about how perspective transforms for the better under love. Through a world built by echoing xylophone noises, powerful synths and high-pitched vocal samples, the group capture a certain euphoria and assurance that difficulties are always surmountable. Sung by only six members – which is half of the entire group – this song also provides members with more space to shine. “Dreamlike” is a bright and irresistible force. When songs like this are so high-calibre from their mood to their vocals and especially to their production, it is easy to understand why so many people have found a positive strength in listening to K-pop. – JT Early
Christine and the Queens – “People, I’ve been sad”
If you heard “People, I’ve been sad” without knowing its title, you might think Héloïse Letissier (a.k.a. Christine) is singing from a third-person perspective: “It’s true that people have been sad.” As it progresses, though, you can gauge just how personal this all is for her. The opening track to the La Vita Nuova EP, her first release since her mother’s death last year, “People, I’ve been sad” is Christine striking a nerve through both blunt and more-indirect language, including sections beautifully sung in French.
Drum machines march stoically, bass synth murmurs, strings shiver, and backing vocals remind you of when M83 could make music that actually felt sincere. All of these elements, beautiful as they are, don’t have a place or purpose without Christine and her message. She could perform this a cappella and still warrant a spot on this list. When talking about difficult topics like death, artists are often expected to get straight to the point with no room for other interpretations or rely on allusions and allegories that require immense unpacking. “People, I’ve been sad” tells you everything Christine wants you to know in its title and opening line, but there’s still the sense of uncovering more with each listen. If it helps you with your own hard times, then all the better. – Brody Kenny
Yves Tumor – “Kerosene!”
I feel like some old Yves Tumor fans must hate this song. The former PAN artist, who ventured into industrial and noise territories on previous releases, went full-on pop this year with Heaven to a Tortured Mind and its single “Kerosene!” You’re not going to find any of the inscrutable ‘deconstructed club’ music that defines much of PAN’s output, or the ambient-meets-spoken-word oddity of “Limerence”, Yves’ contribution to mono no aware. Instead, “Kerosene!” eschews that brand of avant cool for the pleasures of stadium-sized pop. This track even samples one of the least cool bands I can think of: England’s wizard-obsessed hard proggers Uriah Heep (specifically 1976’s “Weep in Silence”).
Despite its odd sample, “Kerosene!” is sexy. Lyrically, the song consists of little more than “I can be what you need / I can be anything,” but it’s more about the atmosphere here, which is as thick and flammable as wax. A duet with Diana Gordon, it exudes all the romance of a passionate couple (which, the ridiculous video implies, is kind of the idea). I would say there’s a wild guitar solo, but this song basically is a wild guitar solo. It’s flashy, loud, and a little tacky, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. – Ethan Reis
Lianne La Havas – “Weird Fishes”
It may seem an odd choice to pick out a cover song from Lianne La Havas’s self-titled album as one of the best of the year. It’s a great album full of detailed, personal, soulful songs, led by her stronger-than-ever voice, intricate guitar work, and laid back grooves. It’s an album that roughly charts the evolution and eventual dissolution of a relationship. But then, right in the middle, is her cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes”, a song from their 2007 classic In Rainbows.
It’s not even one of the more popular or commonly-cited Radiohead songs, though it is a track La Havas has been covering for years in her live set. This studio version, however, throws out all the stops. On an album stacked with impressive moments, her “Weird Fishes” is easily the most impressive of them all. She slows the song’s original pace to make it seem almost half-time, and singing over sparse drums and dreamy guitars and keyboards. It all moves at a deliberate pace, until midway through, time freezes. Lianne and co. join together for a stirring a capella bridge, their voices binding together in a tight harmony, before all hell breaks loose.
If you needed any convincing that this cover is a masterwork of reinvention and reimagination, the final two minutes should do the trick. The drums come rushing back in, La Havas’s guitar plucks away at the lead melody, then a wash of synth beams in, everything growing in intensity and volume. La Havas’s singing comes back to repeat, “I’ll hit the bottom / And escape,” practically pleading, shouting. And then it comes to a stuttering close, time resumes, and we move on. But for these six magical, truly alive minutes, La Havas reinterprets and perfectly performs a cover by one of time’s favorite bands, and, arguably, surpasses it along the way. – Jeremy J. Fisette
Grimes – “Delete Forever”
As a general rule I never read YouTube comments, but the top one underneath the official video for Grimes‘ “Delete Forever” is pretty on the mark: “Grimes just invented Space Country genre of music and I was here to witness it.” “Delete Forever” is indeed something else; Grimes morphing her music into a new style, and doing so magically. An acoustic guitar sample is the heart, and by the end of Claire Boucher’s take on addiction, grief, and artistic pressure, light brass and banjo are nestled in there comfortably too. Compared to Miss Anthropocene‘s heavier and darker surroundings, “Delete Forever” shines with clear and bright production. It’s rich and warm – much like you would expect it to be as a melting pot of styles and influences. Maybe it’s been done before but no one does it quite like Grimes. Sit back, listen, and witness it. – Ray Finlayson
Jay Electronica – “A.P.I.D.T.A.” (feat. Jay-Z)
Loss. If nothing else, 2020 has surely been a year of loss. However you want to look at it: personal, familial, cultural, moral, global. Fucking whatever. It’s a mess. “APIDTA” is one to play when the pure gravity of all that, whether intimate or universal, has gotten to you just a bit too much.
Recorded the very night of Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s deaths, the song finds both Jay Electronica and Jay-Z in deeply pensive, nearly broken places. As complex and meaningful as Electronica’s verses are (and I’ll be damned if they don’t employ that Khruangbin groove perfectly), it’s Hov’s input that proves the most memorable, as it finds him clearly on the verge of tears and sounding simply tired. Lately, they haven’t been sleeping well. “I’ve got numbers in my phone, that’ll never ring again,” Jay mourns: “screenshot ‘em so I got ‘em … I don’t want this thing to end.” This is one for all of us with numbers we can never call again. If this one doesn’t hit you, please, talk to someone. – Chase McMullen
Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”
Anyone else feel like they were going crazy during quarantine? Thundercat was supposed to come to Philly on my birthday in late March, but alas, everything came crashing down. On March 13, he cancelled the rest of his then-underway tour by posting an extremely bass-boosted Ken Burns-effect of Michael Jackson [warning: it’s LOUD]. This was super on-brand for Thundercat, who released not only the funniest video of the year (directed by Zack Fox), but also the catchiest song in “Dragonball Durag”.
But yeah, quarantine: the start of it definitely had moments of ‘Shit, I don’t have to go into work, I can just smoke weed and marvel at how bizarre everything is’. This was only healthy for so long. By eliminating the outdoors, life became an absurd continuum of domestic theater. Upstairs, downstairs. Entering any room was soundtracked by the opening bass notes of “Dragonball Durag”, which was literally fucking impossible to get out of my head. Any response (whether spoken or internal) to ‘how are you?’ was inevitably “I feel kinda fly…” As ‘normal’ disappeared and temporary madness crept in, the comic genius of Thundercat soundtracked it all. Bonus points for, like Thunder, being covered in cat hair the whole time. – Ethan Reis
ZOMBIE-CHANG – “SNOOZE”
[Roman Label / BAYON PRODUCTION]
“Snooze” is chaos. If you haven’t heard the album by now then [insert Game of Thrones “Shame!” gif here]. Zombie-Chang truly defined this cursed COVID-restricted era with Take Me Away from Tokyo. It’s all pent-up energy and (understandable) self-absorbed fatigue. “Snooze” in particular feels like a portrait of the artist babbling with herself. It’s sporadic. It’s a bit nuts. It’s all of us. The beat skitters and skips about, flirting with absolute mania, but never slipping over the edge, instead ensnaring us in a damn-near perfect dance groove. Waking up too early in quarantine? Throw the headphones on (we musn’t bother the neighbors, after all) and go crazy in your room to this one. There’s even an alarm clock woven into the insanity for you. As good as any morning cup of coffee. Ride it out. – Chase McMullen
Owen Pallett – “A Bloody Morning”
“A Bloody Morning” deserves plenty of accolades, sure, but one award it needs is ‘Song That’s Most Ominously Prescient’ or something like that. Written years ago, it’s all very spooky that the song speculates, “Surely some disaster will descend and equalize us / A crisis / Will unify the godless and the fearless and the righteous.” Maybe that’s just the unfathomable genius of Owen Pallett at work, creating art ahead of its time. (Or maybe it’s all part of a conspiracy…? Probably not.)
Fictitious awards aside though, “A Bloody Morning” is something astounding. To call it a force of nature feels apt, as drums (courtesy of Greg Fox) create an angry ocean for piano, strings, and brass to morph around. Deep, bellowing strings emerge repeatedly, like a leviathan of a wave set to crash into our central character’s ship, if not submerging it completely. The tension, the drama, and the spectacle of Pallett’s Lewis character drunkenly steering a ship through a raging ocean as passengers fall overboard is impossible not to get absorbed in. The track is a perfect example of how talented a composer Pallett is – all without even picking up their own violin. Strings rise and fall, become cyclical as brass beckons another wave to crash; if you start gasping for breath it’s only because the track sweeps you up into the action so well. – Ray Finlayson