2020 YEAR IN REVIEW: Our Annual Mixtapes Ft. Our Favorite Songs of the Year
Every year we put our favorite songs on conceptual mixtapes even though we haven't had a cassette deck in the car (or house) for many years now. Even used cars don't have them, which tells you how far out of sync we are with the times. But, like it or not, this is how we've always made sense of our favorite songs of the year and there's no reason to change old habits now. So here we present four tapes, with 26 songs each (the average number of songs we could fit on a single tape back in the day), that chronicle our year in music. That means you get a grand total of 104 of our favorite songs, not for a penny, but for absolutely nothing! They are even ranked in descending order for maximum drama. Not only that, each artist gets represented only once no matter how many great songs they came up with this year. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a real mixtape. When we call it a mixtape, we mean it. Believe it or not, we stopped at four tapes, but could've kept going.
Reader's Note: For a song to make this list, there is usually what we call at the Pickled Priest offices, a "Moment of Conversion" during a song. While all the songs on this list have many great qualities, this is the one small moment that put the song over the top for us. Included as a courtesy and/or amusement only. Also, we've written about many of these songs already throughout the year, so some previous comments are included and/or updated. Overall, you're still getting about 79% brand new content. So enjoy.
MIXTAPE #4: SONGS 104-79
104 TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS / "Drop Off Head"
Blurb: One of the planet’s biggest musical losses in 2020 was this Jamaican reggae legend, but he left us with a very good farewell album loaded with sage advice (weed’s most beneficial side effect) like What fall off your head, fall on the ground. Sounds pretty logical (inhale) to me (exhale).
Moment of Conversion: The honking intro, which is highly unusual for a reggae track.
103 RZA FT. GHOSTFACE KILLAH / "Fighting for Equality"
Blurb: This song is from a real movie, Cut Throat City, which I haven’t seen yet (only limited release with Covid restrictions). It’s a heist film—set in post-Katrina New Orleans—and this song from the film’s director, and Wu-Tang mastermind, RZA, sadly shows that the issues facing black Americans have always been the same. Ghostface Killah adds just the right amount of righteous anger to the track, which also manages to work in a little Avalanches-esque sampling for good measure.
Moment of Conversion: One powerful verse kind of sums up everything...
We fightin’ for equality, we not fightin’ for your pity
We fightin’ for your right to life, the right to liberty
The right to make it on our own, you can’t take it
No! Give it to me!
102 CF WATKINS / "Babygirl"
Blurb: A gorgeous little earworm dedicated to childhood friends, this is the song all of us would (or should) write if we could. It's a sweet little gem of a song and we refuse to allow it to get lost in the shuffle this year.
Moment of Conversion: Ooh honey I love the way that you move me.
101 THE ROLY MO / "Stuck in a Rut"
Blurb: Glasgow's the Roly Mo accidentally summed up the mood this year with this single, which owes some royalties to the 1979 Ruts punk classic "In a Rut" (they were in a rut) and even sounds to me like it could’ve co-existed with that song back in the late-70's. As it turns out, it was needed just as much, and likely even more, in 2020.
Moment of Conversion: If you're going to get stuck in a rut, you may as well have a heavy Scottish accent while you're trying to get out.
100 THE NELS CLINE SINGERS / "Princess Phone"
Blurb: The whole Share the Wealth album is a sonic adventure, but this relatively short, but still nearly six-minute, track brings a little of everything that makes the Nels Cline Singers' anything-goes music so exhilerating.
Moment of Conversion: The last minute or so sounds like a marching band falling down a long flight of stairs.
99 RÓISÍN MURPHY / "Murphy's Law"
Blurb: Has no artist with her last name recorded a song with this title yet? How is that possible? This disco-ready track is a lady in waiting, patiently waiting to fuel dance floor machinations worldwide the second someone gives the flashing green strobe light.
Moment of Conversion: The rhythm is good for any task, but if you want a brisk workout at home, motivation to tackle a steep incline, or something that'll make vacuuming your house a snap, here you go.
98 WALTER MARTIN / "The World at Night (for Stew)"
Blurb: Sleeper album alert: Walter Martin's absolutely charming buried gem, The World at Night. From that album, here's the title track, a sweet little poem about what happens when the world goes to sleep. Animals roam free without fear, truck drivers cop a snooze on the side of the road, and fireflies look like floating pieces of candy in the dark sky. Yes, it's also a time for cat burglars, prostitutes, and murderers, but let's forget that for a few moments and enjoy the innocence of this song for a few minutes.
Moment of Conversion: Oh, I love the world at night.
97 IRON WIGS / "Problematic"
Blurb: The song begins by dropping you right in the middle of a high-brow cocktail party, but if you eavesdrop on a few private conversations you'll soon realize the topics du jour are not the typical stuffy fare of the upper crust. I spent the night in the corner with the boys from Iron Wigs, easily the most amusing conversationalists in the room.
Moment of Conversion: How this for a gangsta lyric? More frightening than the business end of an AK-47!
It's always best to shut your fuckin' mouth, unless I speak directy to you
Even then it's probably best, I still might lose my temper
Stick this pencil tip directly through you
96 EARLY JAMES / "Blue Pill Blues"
Blurb: No, it's not a song about Viagra. Old school singer Early James takes on modern subject matter with this song about the downside of trying to regulate an addled mind with "blue pills" like Zoloft and Xanax. It's got a cool slow build, like he's waiting for the meds to kick in, and when they do the only noticeable side effect is a sly little groove and a little sandpaper in the wind pipes.
Moment of Conversion: The opening verse sets an ominous tone and you'll want to see how it comes out.
What's rolling and churning in my poor mind
Supposed to hold fast, supposed to keep me feeling fine
But it's cookin' my goose wt a cast-iron noose
Can't walk a straight line, I'm runnin' on strychnine
95 RONNIE EARL AND THE BROADCASTERS / "Lord Protect My Child"
Blurb: If you're a parent, all you want is to protect what’s most vulnerable and important to you, and this Bob Dylan-penned song expresses that instinct in dramatic fashion. But imagine if everyday you feared for your child's safety, really feared for it—on the streets, walking to school, dealing with the police, sleeping in your bed at night. Diane Blue, with support from Ronnie Earl’s crying guitar, does just that with one of the great vocal performances of 2020.
Moment of Conversion: While Ronnie wails, Diane Blue brings it all back home :
While the world is asleep
You can look at it and weep
Few things you find are worthwhile
And though I don’t ask for much
No material things to touch
Lord, protect my child
94 AC/DC / "Shot in the Dark"
Blurb: This hot new Australian band cranks out meaty riffs and screeches like a midnight cat fight as if they were schooled on prime-era AC/DC. I bet if you slipped this song in at the end of Back in Black nobody would think it out of place. In fact, it would probably be a classic rock radio staple right now.
Moment of Conversion: The unexpectedly deep and poignant lyrics about the current state of world relations makes you rethink who we, not just as individuals, but as a species. It also pontificates about what we can do to heal this misguided and divided world. Just kididng. For the 200th consecutive AC/DC track, it's the guitar riff.
93 R.A. THE RUGGED MAN / "Golden Oldies"
Blurb: I'm familiar with R.A. the Rugged Man's dilemma. Aging man tries to convey the importance of older, influential artists to the deaf ears of youth, who think their currently favored music just appeared out of nowhere, influenced by nothing. R.A. has a checkered past, and has been his own worst enemy when it comes to his career, but All My Heroes Are Dead proves his rapping skills are right up there with the best in the business.
Moment of Conversion: R.A. has a wildly diverse array of reference points, is clearly extremely intelligent, and pulls off dizzying, complex rhymes with relative ease. He's defiantly old school to his core. Which only makes the sudden courtroom-styled argument for the relevance of old school that much more amusing: "Lemonade was a popular drink / And it still is!!"
92 BOBBY WEST / "As the Morning Crept In"
Blurb: When was the last time your were knocked out by someone’s voice? If it’s been a while, spend a few minutes with Liverpool crooner Bobby West's first single. He’s a throwback romancer with a disappointingly bland name (a midfielder for Liverpool FC, perhaps) who also looks like he could play Eddie Vedder in a Pearl Jam biopic. The audio and visual disconnect notwithstanding, this soothing, sultry ballad, complete with cozy bedroom saxophone, will lure you into its lair like Barry White on a Saturday night. And news flash: you ain't leavin' til Sunday morning.
Moment of Conversion: If you sing like Bobby W, you can get away with just about anything, even lines like, Fix me a drink / Pour yourself on me babe / Don’t be polite.
91 AUBRIE SELLERS / "My Love Will Not Change"
Blurb: “My Love Will Not Change” is a stomping duet with Steve Earle and finds Aubrie pledging consistency and loyalty in perhaps the most convincing way possible; by pumping some wattage into your cottage. She’s the real deal and the 100-proof is in the pudding on this floorboard rattling ripper.
Moment of Conversion: Thumping drums.
90 NADA SURF / "Something I Should Do"
Blurb: This is a band that survives on their many converted fans, but has likely given up on any hopes for mass acceptance. Ironically, they got a taste of such acceptance with their one big hit, “Popular” from their 1996 debut High/Low (a song I’ve never loved, although it’s their only hit single to date). That song holds some common ground with “Something I Should Do.” Both provide a spoken word element, the former a sarcastic takedown of how to be popular in high school, the latter an indictment of the narcissistic social media-based society in which we live. The common theme of distorting who you are to maintain a more appealing public image is particularly sad since the songs were written almost a quarter-century apart—we’ve learned nothing as a society, and if anything, we’ve gotten much worse, failing to learn as adults what we should’ve figured out when we were pimply teenagers. “Something I Should Do” is a far more ambitious song than "Popular" in the end, though. It shows us what we’ve become in this divisive day and age: And now the lines of non-facts waiting to get in the conversation are getting longer and longer / And some people can’t be beat in an argument. It makes me wonder if we will ever learn.
Moment of Conversion: The spoken, urgent rant at the end, which ends with a call for unity, Empathy is good, lack of empathy is bad / Holy math says we’re never not together.
89 MORON'S MORONS / "You Put Hot in Psychotic"
Blurb: What I didn't know I needed until recently: Polish punk rock! (Thanks, PH!) Everything you need to know can be discerned from the album cover above. Don't you want to know what this sounds like? If you're looking for danger, make a left when you hit Warsaw and keep going until you hit this band's next gig.
Moment of Conversion: I love a garage punk song with a killer concept. I cannot believe nobody thought of this one before.
88 SWAMP DOGG & JOHN PRINE / "Please Let Me Go Round Again"
Blurb: John Prine's spot on this list was a tough call this year. The obvious choice is his tender swan song, "I Remember Everything," but my favorite Prine moments both came from Swamp Dogg's latest album, Sorry You Couldn't Make It. "Memories" is an instant classic, a fitting partner for "I Remember Everything." But "Please Let Me Go Round Again," is the real charmer for me, featuring spontaneous studio banter between the two old friends as they try to convince the powers-that-be to let them come back for another round of Earthly living. And if anybody is going to get that chance, I think John Prine would be one of the top vote-getters if an election were held right now.
Moment of Conversion: The studio banter.
87 COWBOY JUNKIES / "Desire Lines"
Blurb: The magic has never left this band, just the press coverage. Margo is still one of the coolest, and sexiest, women in rock and her brother one of the best guitarists and songwriters. "Desire Lines" moves at the speed of a Cowboy Junkie, which is slow and deliberate, but you won't be able to turn away either.
Moment of Conversion: Michael Timmins creates an otherworldly atmosphere with his guitar.
86 ADIA VICTORIA / "South Gotta Change"
Blurb: Adia Victoria has been writing about her love/hate relationship with the South ever since she started writing music, so she seems uniquely qualified to demand real change. Back in 2016, on her debut record, Beyond the Bloodhounds, she wrote a song called “Stuck in the South,” that explained the paradox of being black in the South. If you’re from somewhere (in her case, South Carolina), that place will always be in your DNA, for better or worse. And you shouldn’t have to abandon your home to obtain fairness and social acceptability. She wrote then: I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout Southern belles / But I can tell you somethin’ ‘bout Southern hell / When your skin give ‘em cause / To take and take. Fast forward to 2020 and the “gothic blues” (her term) of “South Gotta Change” spells out the challenge of making racial inroads in the highly jaded South by addressing it head-on:
Stood up to the mountain, told the mountain “Say my name”
And if you’re tired of walking, let the children lead the way
Cause I love you, I won’t leave you, won’t let you slip away
Come what may, we’re gonna find a way, South gotta change
Moment of Conversion: The message.
85 JARROD DICKENSON / "Your Heart Belongs to Me"
Blurb: Here's a timeless duet between Waco's Jarrod Dickenson and wife Claire that would be the perfect for the first dance at your wedding reception because it's about two people who are seeking the same thing and find it in each other. If you're already married, this might be worth getting a quickie divorce so you can erase the memory of that dubious first dance choice you made when you were young, insufferable lovers.
Moment of Conversion: Duet chemistry can't be faked.
84 RAYE ZARAGOZA / "Fight Like a Girl"
Blurb: The title might sound self-deprecating, but in this case it's a distinct asset. This is the war on equality, after all, where you proudly wage your battles on your own terms. What might be perceived as a weakness can actually turn into a strength. And if that fight also sounds like an overlooked, shoulda-been pop single, even better.
Moment of Conversion: Horns.
83 BOB DYLAN / "I Contain Multitudes"
Blurb: He doesn't mean to brag, he doesn't mean to boast, but he contains multitudes, baby. So sit down with me and have a drink. If anyone can rightfully claim such a quality while trolling singles bars, it's this single bard.
Moment of Conversion: I drive fast cars / I eat fast foods / I contain multitudes. Multitudes of speeding tickets and belly fat, but multitudes nonetheless.
82 A GIRL CALLED EDDY / "Two Hearts"
Blurb: A Girl Called Eddy is actually the stage name of New Jersey’s Erin Moran (no, not Joanie “Shortcake” Cunningham from Happy Days). She's clearly enamored with the classic Brill Building songwriters of the early 60s and has a soulful voice that perfectly complements that tradition. “Two Hearts” was the album’s no-brainer single, which bounces along with strings in pursuit as Erin pines away for a lover. And she doesn’t appear to be worried about how long it will take for him to find her either. It took her sixteen years to follow up her debut album, so this girl is patient!
Moment of Conversion: We meet the big chorus at the :35 mark for the first time.
81 DELVON LAMARR ORGAN TRIO / "Fo Sho"
Blurb: “Fo Sho” is right! Let’s get this straight: Booker T & the MGs are long gone and they ain’t comin’ back. So what shall we do to get a new fix for our old, broken-down souls? Hammond B-3 organ maestro Delvon Lamarr and his Trio have your answer on their absolutely killer new 45. If you love that Stax sound as much as I do, this is as tasty as a hot thigh from Gus’s Fried Chicken in Memphis.
Moment of Conversion: What's better than tulips on your piano? Delvon Lamarr on your organ.
80 LYDIA LOVELESS / "Can't Think"
Blurb: She can't think when she's in love. A common ailment and the main reason the divorce rate is well over 50%. And I bet your divorce didn't sound this good.
Moment of Conversion: Honesty is such a lonely word, but mostly what I need from Lydia.
79 SLIFT / "Lions, Tigers and Bears"
Blurb: Mixtape warning: the songs on these mixtapes will not necessarily fit on a real BASF or Maxell 100-minute tape. I figured very few would ever reconstruct them anyway, so I didn't bother to monitor total time accumulations. (I was super anal about such things back in the day.) Which conveniently allows me to put this thirteen-minute masterpiece on the big list without concern.
Moment of Conversion: The final five minutes.
MIXTAPE #3: SONGS 78-53
78 REN HARVIEU / "Strange Thing"
Blurb: Ren croons like one of those sexy lounge singers who sits on a guy’s lap during the show as his wife watches uncomfortably from the next chair. “Strange Thing” welcomes you with open paws into her playful, exotic world.
Moment of Conversion: "Let me put my paws on you..."
77 GANSER / "Lucky"
Blurb: On “Lucky,” Nadia Garofalo spits out shards of quotable lines like Thought you’d be more / Thought you’d be OK / Hell of a day, kid / Hell…of…a…day like she’s channeling Parker Posey dealing out a dose of real world advice to a room full of recent college graduates.
Moment of Conversion: The drums drive the discussion.
76 ILLUMINATI HOTTIES / "Freequent Letdown"
Blurb: A two-minute, self-deprecating garage rock number from Sarah Tudzin that’s the best Debbie Downer single of 2020. Never has letting everyone down sounded so perky and catchy. If you told me this was a 126.96.36.199’s outtake from the Kill Bill soundtrack, I would’ve believed you.
Moment of Conversion: Mmm hmms.
75 CHUBBY AND THE GANG / "All Along the Uxbridge Road"
Blurb: By the name, it would seem easy to dismiss Chubby & the Gang as a schoolyard goof or Saturday morning cartoon, but these London pop-punks are the real deal. “All Along the Uxbridge Road” is one of many gems from the Gang and, even better, shares its title with the classic Monty Python skit “Climbing the North Face of Uxbridge Road” where “sidewalk climbers” horizontally make their way down the street in full mountain climbing regalia. Nice job gents, look forward to more in the near future.
Moment of Conversion: Hand claps.
74 KHRUANGBIN & LEON BRIDGES / "Texas Sun"
Blurb: This is a Chamber of Commerce's dream come true. The song makes the warm Texas sun seem like the greatest thing ever. If the Texas legislature was smart they'd make this the new state song immediately. The reality check is that a nice hot sun is all fine and good until your inner thighs are chafed, your dress shirt is soaked, and people in 10-gallon hats start asking you if you're having a heart attack.
Moment of Conversion: By Texas law, if Leon Bridges sings on a track it must be cited as that song's most significant asset.
73 CHRISTONE "KINGFISH" INGRAM / "Rock & Roll"
Blurb: I didn't realize this, but apparently people are still selling their soul for rock & roll. I imagine that business is not good, though, based on the current stock price of the genre. Oh, and here's a new twist. Such deals are now being made with angels at the Pearly Gates rather than at the proverbial crossroads with the devil. Apparently even Satan has no time for aspiring guitarists anymore (he's a hip-hop fan now like eveybody else). Kingfish is a true guitar prodigy, so I'm not surprised that his mom negotiated some sort of deal with the angels on his behalf at some point. So, like a good son, Christone is going to live up to his side of her celestial bargain.
Moment of Conversion: The chorus has a stirring chorus that evokes the mood of Dobie Gray's "Drift Away," which is never a bad thing.
72 GERRY CINNAMON / "Sun Queen"
Blurb: I became fascinated with Gerry Cinnamon's story (not to mention his bowl haircut) earlier this year and his openhearted songs have stuck with me ever since. There's little wonder why his populist music resonates with so many in his native Scotland and surrounding areas (his album, The Bonny, went #1 in Scotland, Ireland, and the UK, and he plays to stadiums of loyal fans across the pond). He is one of the people, eschewing the normal trappings of fame, using his talent to bring joy into the lives of regular folks with stories from everyday working lives. "Sun Queen" is an interesting summation of Gerry's life to date—acknowledging his success, but remaining fiercely independent still, always reverting back to what matters to him the most. It doesn't always work, but when it does, like it does here, the results can bring people together.
Moment of Conversion: I must admit, when I sing the chorus to this song I get choked up and I'm not exactly sure why.
71 DAN REEDER / "Nobody Wants to Be You"
Blurb: The old phrase “I wouldn’t want to be you right now” (often said by my brother to me) gets revisited here as a true crime drama, You’re gonna have to tell her what happened to the car / And who those guys are in the living room. Has Dan been watching Ozark perhaps?
Moment of Conversion: The little details...And who's that girl who's been hanging around? / The one with the white tube top and the tattoos?
70 PAM TILLIS / "Dolly 1969"
Blurb: It’s always great when Dolly Parton gets properly credited for her genius songwriting and her business savvy, especially by one of Nashville’s very own. Dolly was a trailblazer, determined to set and control her own course in life, and this song, inspired by a picture of Dolly staring down the lens of a photographer’s camera, is a testament to her cultural and creative impact.
Moment of Conversion: Pam describes her photo of Dolly: I got this black and white picture on my wall of Dolly Parton standing by a Sedan Deville...
69 MOODYMANN / "Do Wrong"
Blurb: Moodymann isn’t just dialing my area code on “Do Wrong,” the call is coming from inside the house! Literally. Moody is a house music cult figure in Detroit’s underground dance community and his latest record kicks off with this low-riding club track that beds a mandatory heavy bass beat with what sounds like a sample recorded at a local Baptist church (not unlike the approach used by Moby on his bazillion-selling Play from 1999). “Do Wrong” begins with the Moodymann sitting in a high-backed chair in a dark living room—the only light his lit cigarette—as his baby comes home from a night out: Mmm, mmm, set your purse down, baby, and take off that coat, and you just know a stern lecture is coming next. We find out his girl’s reckless ways have got him back at church looking for spiritual guidance on how to reel her back from the so-called “devils work.”
Moment of Conversion: Trunk-busting house beat.
68 KILLER KIN / "Here Come the Killers / Snake Oil"
Blurb: You have to be willing to hang in some nasty places to uncover greasy, deep-fried garage rock as good as what Killer Kin lays down on this twofer, but the research will be as rewarding (and filling) as the music you find. You may even end up stumbling down raunchy back-alleys in degenerate cesspools like—is this right?— New Haven, Connecticut. Seriously, they're from the home of Yale university? You're shitting me, right? It's too late to re-write this blurb now.
Moment of Conversion: I love a band that writes their own theme song. “Here Come the Killers,” now locked in as the first song on their setlist for perpetuity, is a blowtorch of a calling card. It's super smart then that, without so much as a gasp for breath, it segues seamlessly into the smarmy “Snake Oil.” We're the band and this is what we're selling. And this year, I was not only buying, but I have a pantry stacked high with the stuff.
67 JUNIORE / "Bizarre"
Blurb: Only lyrics: Je me sens bizarre, or, if you must, "I feel weird." And this song perfectly complements that sensation. The French are naturally cooler than us, so it you can't beat them, sit at the table next to them.. They certainly won't let you join them, of course.
Moment of Conversion: The whistling. The prevailing habit of nervous people worldwide.
66 FANTASTIC NEGRITO / "Chocolate Samurai"
Blurb: “Chocolate Samurai” has the sole purpose of loosening anything you've got that’s tight. He wants you to lose your mind, free your body, get ready for what's next, eat less sugar, have more sex, and rid your body of stress. It’s all pretty clear, really. The song mixes a funky bassline, some Eddie Hazel-worthy guitar, a killer piano interlude, and several delirious “What the fuck just happened?” moments to keep you alert. It's also a song I’d love to see made into an action movie when Hollywood reopens. I’ve got to see what this translates to on the big screen, because on headphones it’s fucking gonzo shit.
Moment of Conversion: At one point, a little voice sneaks in under the beat and says, I’m partying with Satan right now, never to return. Someone has been worshipping at the altar of George Clinton, that’s for sure.
65 THE JAYHAWKS / "Living in a Bubble"
Blurb: It’s a tribute to 2020 that almost every other song seemed to double as a coping mechanism of sorts. Some of those songs amplified issues, some expressed deeply held frustrations, some helped us tolerate the new normal, and some even made lemonade from our new sour reality. “Living in a Bubble” was a little of all four. Gary Louris, possessor of a penchant for pretty pop, made it all go down sweet and easy with this sunny little number that made everything sound just a little more tolerable for a while.
Moment of Conversion: Bouncy ragtime tempo encourages all to stick their head out every once in a while.
64 PERFUME GENIUS / "On the Floor"
Blurb: I can't decide, if I was in the throws of an epic heartbreak, if this song would make it better or worse. That's why it's genius. With a pulsating, squeeze-box beat, it plays out in real time, pacing the floor with you now that you're a nocturnal basket case. It'll pass, but it might take a couple weeks. Or years.
Moment of Conversion: The throb.
63 LIDO PIMIENTA / "Eso Que Tu Haces"
Blurb: I found it humorous when my Spanish-to-English tool translated this as "That Thing You Do," like it could've been used for a Spanish remake of the Tom Hanks movie of the same name. While far from the case, it's an undeniably catchy single with a soaring chorus that's heartbreaking, but also strangely uplifting.
Moment of Conversion: It's all about the hook at 1:20 and every time thereafter.
62 GOODIE MOB FT. BIG BOI / "Prey 4 Da Sheep"
Blurb: The new Goodie Mob album was somehow overlooked this year, maybe everyone was like me who got into it too late to fully digest it, but so far it sounds like a killer comeback to my ears. It doesn't hurt that it features a double dose of amazing Outkast cameos (are there any other kind?)—the great "No Cigar" featuring Andre 3000, and this powerful feature with Big Boi that pleads for mercy for society's most vulnerable.
Moment of Conversion: They preying on the sheep while the flock flocks / It's the end of days, watch the tick-tock.
61 BEE BEE SEA / "Mheer Sag"
Blurb: You know it's a good song when you don't even know what it's about and you still love it. "Mheer Sag" (meaning of title unknown, but Mheer is a city in the Netherlands and "sag" in Danish means "cause," so I gather that the lyrics stem from a Danish romance). No matter, the whole song's appeal is built not from words, but its exclamations of sheer joy, and to me it sounds like a classico.
Moment of Conversion: Why-ee-aye-ee-aye-ee-aye, oh yeah! at the 1:02 mark. Try not to upshift your Porsche (or Ford Fiesta) when it kicks in.
60 CHARLEY CROCKETT / "Welcome to Hard Times"
Blurb: This song has evolved for me throughout 2020, which is ironic, since it sounds like it could've been recorded in Nashville in the mid-50s. Initially, it seemed like just an amusing loser's tale taken from the Vegas strip. But as the pandemic wore on, more and more people died, and countless businesses suffered—even Vegas a major money loser for once—it seemed to resonate even more. Strangely, it also seemed to contemplate the divisive nature of U.S. politics.
Moment of Conversion: The dice are loaded and everything's fixed / Even a hobo would tell you this.
59 JEHNNY BETH / "I'm the Man"
Blurb: Where Jehnny Beth, lead singer for the fierce Savages (hopefully not defunct), kicks down the door to the executive suite and assumes the seat reserved for the Chairman of the Board, all to a thunderous, pounding beat that Muddy Waters—circa Hard Again—would totally dig. Jehnny has always been a full-force dynamo capable of dominating when and how she wants to and here she shows she can access that power with the flick of a switch.
Moment of Conversion: Somewhere beyond the song’s half-way point she seems to trip an internal circuit breaker, which acts as a momentary cease-fire to hostilities. But just as the horses settle into an easy gait, as if the previous outburst was all just a dream, she returns with a furious left hook wake-up call.
58 ROBERT VINCENT / "The Kids Don't Dig God Anymore"
Blurb: Frazey Ford wrote a great song this year titled “The Kids Are Having None of It” about how the youth of today “can’t be taught your hate.” Now, Liverpool’s resident Americana specialist has written another song where the same youth won’t be buying your staid religious beliefs either. I really wish I was part of this generation that’s defying old conventions and challenging entrenched beliefs. But the good news is we can all join in with the kids any time we want. Because, as Robert sings with eyes wide open, “maybe they’re right.”
Moment of Conversion: The resigned realization that the kids may indeed be alright.
57 ARLO MCKINLEY / "We Were Alright"
Blurb: Just like Arlo himself, this song hit me like a ton of bricks when I realized where it was headed. I don’t know if I’ve heard a song that is so achingly beautiful for the first half and so heartbreaking in the second half. You so want the feeling to be real that I was almost angry when I found out the truth. Masterfully written.
Moment of Conversion: The simple things in life are often the most profound: I looked over at you / I had a smile on my face / And I noticed you were smiling, too.
56 AMANDA SHIRES FT. JASON ISBELL / "The Problem"
Blurb: A gorgeous, and very timely, duet from this talented husband and wife duo, especially with the compositional make-up of the Supreme Court leaning to the right and long-established precedents in serious jeopardy of being overturned. The desire to take away a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body is high on the conservative wish list, but this song tenderly demonstrates that abortion is not an easy decision made callously by reckless liberals as some might like you to think. “The Problem” is a thoughtful conversation between two young "kids" grappling with the many different aspects of the decision-making process. The woman asks powerful questions (“Will you look at me the same?” “Is a chrysalis a butterfly?”), the man provides unconditional support for her decision (“Everything’s going to be okay” “I’m on your side”). It came out in support of International Safe Abortion Day to raise money for the Yellowhammer Fund, a reproductive justice group based in Alabama. And those groups may need your support more than ever soon, so buy the track and give them some love.
Moment of Conversion: The entire thing, from the first to the third trimester.
55 STAR FEMININE BAND / "Montealla"
Blurb: Fresh off our Top 25 Records list is this band of teen and pre-teen girls straight outta Benin, Africa, who radiate joy and positivity and purpose out of every pore of their tiny little frames. Their record is only the length of a sitcom, and one song feeds the next, so it's hard to pick one when you should experience the whole thing at once. But represent they must, so I gravitate toward this infectious mid-album celebration.
Moment of Conversion: Vocal gymnastics at 1:47 mark.
54 JESS CORNELIUS / "Kitchen Floor"
Blurb: I love this song because it upends the usual. In this case, Jess sings about guys she hooks up with and then walks, walks, walks out on. The lyrics are her literal marching orders to herself—a users manual, if you'll pardon the pun. In the beginning, she's callous, There's so much I don't want from you, but by the end, she finds her modus operandi starting to wear thin, Uh oh / This is going to be a hard one / This is going to be the hardest one I've ever done. She's like a serial romance killer with a conscience.
Moment of Conversion: When Jess takes us through the process of leaving one step at a time, complete with a quick pit stop in the bathroom.
53 DENISE CHAILA / "Chaila"
Blurb: This is “calling card” rap. I love when artists deliver their manifesto right out the box. And if it's Zambian-Irish rap, even better! In this bargain, you get a brief summation of the artist—what she's about, how she rolls—to set expectations for the listener in case there’s interest (and I’m interested). Among the things Denise clarifies: I do what I want with my pronouns / Keep it low key on my profile; I’ve got drive, don’t need gas / I wanna go far, not go fast; I don’t go Dutch when I checkmate (I binge watched The Queen's Gambit and I still don't know what that means); and I work hard so I can harvest / Won’t pick my fruit from the low branches. It’s the song equivalent of an FAQ link on a website. But she doesn’t stop there; she settles her last beef on the chorus, which acts as a musical pronunciation guide for her last name, which apparently is often butchered. It’s not Chillay / It’s not Chilala / Not a hard pill to swalla. So get it right people or fear reprisal!
Moment of Conversion: Her casual amusement with herself throughout.
MIXTAPE #2: SONGS 52-27
52 BACKXWASH / "Into the Void"
Blurb: This is one of the more powerful songs about discrimination released this year and it has mostly flown under the radar until recently wen it has started to appear on some year-end lists.
Moment of Conversion: Every time he repeatedly screams "Fuck!" it's cathartic, it's earned, it's with frustration, it's with purpose. And you can tap into his angst as you see fit and use it to vent your own personal frustrations with the world. Well, that's what I've been doing at least.
51 HAYLEY WILLIAMS / "Dead Horse"
Blurb: Hayley put out one of the best single-LP pop albums of 2020, but it was housed inside a bloated, hour-long double-LP titled Petals for Armor. If I could put together only my top ten favorite songs, it would've made my Top 50 list and perhaps the Top 25. "Dead Horse" shows that she can write pop songs that sound like nobody else's. Not an easy task in this producer-dominated world.
Moment of Conversion: The whole song is a hook, so the Spanish-inflected chant at 1:59 isn't even needed. But I'm so glad they added it in. If I wanted to demonstrate to someone what the "Moment of Conversion" means, this is what I'd play them.
50 BEACH BUNNY / "Dream Boy"
Blurb: Everything sounds like a chorus on this crunchy power-pop song from Chicago's Beach Bunny thanks to the crafty songwriting, guitar playing, and singing of triple-threat Lili Trifilio. She's got a pretty damn good rock band behind her, too.
Moment of Conversion: The little interlude from 1:27-1:42 shows craft when they could've stuck with power hooks alone without anyone noticing.
49 THE EXBATS / "I Got the Hots for Charlie Watts"
Blurb: A low-key, but super-charming single that, for once, actually lives up to its title, which could easily have drifted into novelty record territory. Instead, it’s a swell little tribute to “the most dapper man in rock” from a fan and fellow drummer. We'll all have to agree to overlook the fact that there's a 59-year age differential between Watts and twenty-year-old singer/drummer Inez McLain, but it's about time we gave the drummer some for once. Just be thankful she fell for the classy Charlie Watts and not the lascivious Ronnie Wood.
Moment of Conversion: When Inez admits "I can't relate to the Beatles anymore" it always cracks me up.
48 MANDY MOORE / "Tryin' My Best, Los Angeles"
Blurb: Just as a I love songs about New York City—a city that demands and deserves to be celebrated in song—I have a similar, albeit slightly less pronounced, affinity for songs about Los Angeles (Neil Diamond did both in one song!). But there's something equally alluring about both cities. People travel there to test themselves, to see what they've got. And the results aren't always kind. This is about the most honest song I've heard on the subject in some time.
Moment of Conversion: The chorus, to which every aspiring actor can surely relate, sounds like it is being sung from an apartment complex rooftop with an emotion somewhere in the middle of determination and frustration.
47 JESS WILLIAMSON / "Love's Not Hard to Find"
Blurb: Jess, so pensive on her album cover, has a way of writing the prettiest songs but disguising them a bit so they take a while to settle in.
Moment of Conversion: I love how she sings the first part of the title Love's not hard almost casually, only to finish it with a soaring conclusion, ...Hard to fiiiiiiiiind. It's so pretty and shows off her crafty melodic genius.
46 BUBAZA / "Ice Breaker"
Blurb: Colemine Records might need to change their name to Goldmine Records if they keep kicking out so many killer singles. My favorite 45 of this year comes on this one-off groovefest from Bubaza, a band made up of members of Jungle Fire and The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble. If I were you, I'd add some funky dancefloor ragers like this one to your life right about now. It's time to loosen up that tight booty and shake it all about.
Moment of Conversion: If this were a book you could title it How to Sell a Song in Five Seconds.
45 DEHD / "Haha"
Blurb: I'm always amazed what can be done in about two-minutes and this song is further proof.
Moment of Conversion: If you're going to title a song "Haha" the best part had better be the "haha's" and Dehd doesn't let us down.
44 THE SECRET SISTERS / "Late Bloomer"
Blurb: A song for the stragglers with a great message: It doesn’t matter when you bloom / It matters that you do. All with perfect background vocals like you might find on AM radio in the 1970s. I could easily see this as an add-on track to Carole King’s Tapestry.
Moment of Conversion: Classic, deliberate 70's singer/songwriter piano accompaniment.
43 MALIN PETTERSEN / "Arkansas"
Blurb: It's not a good sign that much of the best Americana music I listened to this year wasn't from America. Liverpool's Robert Vincent checked in with a spectacular record this year and Norwegian songwriter Malin Pettersen wasn't that far behind. Please check out the whole album, but I particularly love her songs "Let's Go Out," "California" (which captures the vibe of thestate better than songs written by locals), and this ode to mining for diamonds in the Arkansas State Park system. A charming little slice of wide-eyed speculation.
Moment of Conversion: How does a Norwegian come up with a song like this?
42 MOLLY TUTTLE / "Olympia, WA"
Blurb: Yep, it's a Rancid cover. A song she and her friends loved as young girls gets a remarkable reinvention. She takes the brawling original's street-punk bounce and strips it down for parts, only to reassemble it into a jaunty acoustic number that accentuates the lyrics without losing the loose spontaneity the song needs. How it sounds so natural in this setting, I don’t know. But it does.
Moment of Conversion: The instrumental breakdown right before the song kicks back in at 2:55.
41 ORVILLE PECK / "Summertime"
Blurb: The clear timeless classic from Orville's Show Pony EP is its first single, “Summertime” (not the Gershwin classic). It's an ode to the end of summer, which will always translate for me to that moment in The Flamingo Kid when they're packing up the resort patio furniture and all the guests have all gone home. It's even more melancholy this year since our summer wasn't a real summer at all. Far from carefree, to say the least.
Moment of Conversion: When his once-in-a-lifetime croon walks along the thick bass line, it captures the feeling most of us were dealing with when September rolled around this year.
40 NADIA REID / "Oh Canada"
Blurb: New Zealand's Nadia Reid navigated the globe to make her new album, so it's no wonder it sounds like a travelogue made by someone who doesn’t seem to know how talented she is or how her music will translate to the rest of the world. Clearly her travels frame an inner struggle she can’t quite reconcile. “Oh Canada” is the perfect example. Here, her pleasing Kiwi accent and understated soulful voice seem restless to explore uncharted territory, both geographical and emotional. I would like to go to Canada / I have never been there before, the song begins. Later she continues, I am lonely for you in Norway, I am lonely for you in Spain / Could you hold me in the darkness? / Would you tell the world my name? Meanwhile, the Spacebomb House Band takes what could be a basic singer-songwriter affair and moves it to another level entirely. She's finally arrived at her destination.
Moment of Conversion: Slight pronunciation quirks. "Been" pronounced "bean" instead of "bin," etc. Just like that guy on The Amazing Race.
39 BOOTSY COLLINS / "Bootsy Off Broadway"
It's Another Blurb, Baby!: Thankfully for us, Honorary Professor of the Funk, Bootsy Collins, has put his lectures on tape for us all to hear this year. He teaches us Funk 101 throughout his new album and brings in a host of guest lecturers along the way to help convey the message. Aesthetically, it's all done just like they did back in the 70s, with that "anything goes" spirit that made those prime Parliament/Funkadelic records so weird and wonderful. Not everything works by design, but you won't care. It's just fun living in his world, and the further he goes off Broadway, the more madcap it gets.
Moment of Conversion: You've got to love a song that makes time to introduce the band. I suppose if you were playing with a band that included Branford Marsalis, Christian McBride, Johnny Davis, and Bernard Purdy, you'd do likewise.