Priest Picks #10: 25 of Our Favorite Songs of 2020 (So Far)
Here’s our entry into the “Best Songs of 2020 (So Far)” sweepstakes. Why should we be limited to one list per year?—We’re Americans and we do whatever we want (apparently)! So, I’ve listed 25 songs that have been important to me this year and the rationale for each varies widely from mindful to mindless and points in between. Initially, I was prepared to say this list is agnostic to the circumstances surrounding it, but then I quickly realized the error of my ways. Yes, many of the songs are all-purpose (good during a pandemic or a lake party in Arkansas; sometimes both at once!). But others? Clearly something more profound has driven them onto this list. Be it social injustice or a pandemic or Dolly Parton, the mood of the times has seeped into this list more often than I expected. Here they are, in no specific order, with apologies to many. The year is young and many songs are still campaigning hard with hopes of being elected to the final year-end list. May the best songs win.
1. MOODYMANN / “Do Wrong”
WHY WE LOVE IT: Because it’s a club track with gospel overtones; why not mix your Saturday night with your Sunday morning? This brings the bass-heavy thump of the dance floor and Bible thump of the pulpit together for a showdown between good and evil. Spoiler alert: sinners always seem to win the short game.
(Also see Priest Picks #6)
2. NADINE SHAH / “Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love)”
WHY WE LOVE IT: If you’re looking for conventional songs with predictable structures look elsewhere. Nadine opened the year with the great single, “Buckfast,” (see Priest Picks #4), but this second single from her album Kitchen Sink, which challenges stereotypical gender expectations and offers a disturbing alternative to make a point, has perhaps the most bizarre chorus I’ll be uncontrollably singing for the rest of the year.
3. RUN THE JEWELS / “Walking in the Snow”
WHY WE LOVE IT: If the message weren’t so powerful, the song would still be a great banger worthy of cranking all the way to Costco and back. But with lines like, “You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/ ‘Til my voice goes from shriek to whisper, “I can’t breath’” it went from an angry rap to an eerily prescient call for change to the defining song of 2020.
(Also see Priest Picks #5)
4. PAM TILLIS / “Dolly 1969”
WHY WE LOVE IT: It’s always great when Dolly gets properly credited for her genius songwriting and her business savvy 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.
(Also see Priest Picks #2)
5. LAURA MARLING / “Strange Girl”
WHY WE LOVE IT: Picking a song from the immaculate Song For Our Daughter is difficult, but this one has the catchiest chorus, so it gets the glory. Although it does feature the most terrifying first line of any song in years: “Get all your records out and throw them all away.” But it makes up for it with brilliant verses like “Build yourself a garden and have something to attend/Cut off all relations ‘cause you could not stand your friends/Announced yourself a socialist to have something to defend/Oh, young girl, please, don’t bullshit me.”
6. WAXAHATCHEE / “Fire”
WHY WE LOVE IT: I’m instinctively attracted to Katie Crutchfield’s songs like a mosquito is to a fat boy’s calves. She can paint an indelible image or feeling with a few delicate brushstrokes. “That’s what I wanted/It’s not as if we cry a river, call it rain/West Memphis is on fire in the light of day.” So much is said in just a few words. The first line makes you wonder if you’ve come in a moment too late to catch up on the story. The second line is still a bit hazy, but offers some focus. The third line adds location to the story and implies Katie is returning to a place she knows well. Was this the scene of a past heartbreak? We finally get some clarity in one of the record’s most stunning moments, “If I could love you unconditionally/I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky.” There’s enough for a song right there and we’re only eight lines in.
7. ANGELICA GARCIA / “Penny in My Back Pocket”
WHY WE LOVE IT: Housed in a schoolyard jump rope chant, this is really a song about owning your own life and taking responsibility for your own actions. It’s really inspiring to hear someone so young take charge like that. But it doesn’t mean keeping a lucky penny in your back pocket for good luck makes you any less of a go-getter. It’s smart to get any advantage you can.
(Also see Priest Picks #4)
8. BAMBARA / “Serafina”
WHY WE LOVE IT: The story of Sadie and Serafina (“people call me Sera to save some time”) is literally a fiery tale of two lovers who build a relationship based on a mutual love for setting things on fire. The perfect match, you might say. The story recounts their life together, but in the end they settle down as Sadie promises to “buy us an old house in a big town,” which sounds wonderful until the payoff comes, “Where we can start a life and burn it all to the ground.” To tell a story like this effectively, you need just the right sound to pull it off. Bambara share more than a little with Morphine in this respect. The tale sounds like it is being told around a campfire appropriately enough. Just make sure Sadie and Sera aren’t invited.
9. BRIDGET KEARNEY & BENJAMIN LAZAR DAVIS / “Dog Teeth” (Ft. Stevo Atambire)
WHY WE LOVE IT: American indie-rock meets Afrobeat. I know, that sounds like it could go seriously wrong fast, but there’s too much respect here for that to happen. They seem to intuitively know when it’s time to shift from one to the other and the results are fabulous.
(Also see Priest Picks #5)
10. THE BUTTERTONES / “Bebop”
WHY WE LOVE IT: This band is not without its red flags. The band name is questionable and screams retro rock & roll or lounge music. On top of that, the album cover (and title) cops that famous Blue Note style, indicating the possibility of some smooth jazz in our near future. Thankfully, I trusted my ears and was rewarded with originality and innovation where they could’ve taken the easy way out. To quote the great Steve Cropper, “Bebop” is one of those “instrumentals with vocals” and provides more unexpected thrills per square minute than is even remotely necessary. The more you listen, the more they get revealed. I am glad I live in a world where music like this is made.
(Also see Priest Picks #3)
11. DAN REEDER / “Nobody Wants to Be You”
WHY WE LOVE IT: 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?
(see full write-up in Priest Picks #7)
12. HAYLEY WILLIAMS / “Simmer”
WHY WE LOVE IT: Just what the world needed, a modern rock update of Barney Fife’s famous phrase “Simmer down, Andy, simmer…down!” from the Andy Griffith Show back in the 1960s! Isn’t it great to know that some phrases are timeless, transferring through the generations unchanged? This is a pretty audacious pop song actually, varying tempo, soft/loud, minimal/maximal on a moment’s notice to make something pretty cool and unique.
(See also Priest Picks #2)
13. THE SECRET SISTERS / “Late Bloomer”
WHY WE LOVE IT: 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.
(See also Priest Picks #6)
14. U.S. GIRLS / “4 American Dollars”
WHY WE LOVE IT: Don’t let the naysayers tell you there aren’t great moments on U.S. Girls’ latest record. Meg Remy still has a glorious sense of humor and a flair for the unpredictable. I love the progression of this song. In one verse she’s got four dollars to her name, doing whatever she needs to get by. Then a chorus of poverty-stricken background singers chirps in, “You can do a lot with four American dollars!” Talk about a positive attitude! Miss this record and miss this infectious little oddball, too.
15. BOB MOULD / “American Crisis”
WHY WE LOVE IT: Once again Bob captures the zeitgeist. The truth is, we were in an “American Crisis” long before the pandemic and George Floyd. (Perhaps since November of 2016.) I don’t know about you, but I prefer moments of near collapse be accompanied by as much uncontrollable rage as possible. And Bob more than comes through for us.
(See full write-up in Priest Picks #5)
16. LUCY AND THE RATS / “Dark Clouds”
WHY WE LOVE IT: The new record is imminent, but for now the forecast calls for “Dark Clouds.” If this is what the storm is going to sound like, bring it on.
(See full write-up in Priest Picks #7)
17. POKEY LaFARGE / “Fuck Me Up”
WHY WE LOVE IT: Freshly minted rock and roll that sounds like a stomping oldie from the 50s is a nice trick. JD McPherson is the finest modern purveyor of such an approach, but look out for my friend Pokey, who might be a Midwestern boy you want to bring home to momma during the daytime, but he pulls a Jekyll & Hyde in the evening, “Baby I’m not the toy/You wanna play with at night.” That’s when this werewolf comes out for hooch and weed, so steer clear if you know what’s good for you.
18. FIONA APPLE / “Ladies”
WHY WE LOVE IT: Here’s one lesson to which we should all pay attention—it’s got some real practical advice about moving on from a relationship and allowing yourself to be replaced. Fiona is lucky; she’s one of those artists who make others hang on her every word. How else to explain the reason we’re still sitting here listening when she starts singing about a cute fruit bat, who’s a mutton-head maniac? I don’t even know what the fuck that is or what’s going on, but somehow even that works! I love living in this Fiona-built world. For me, that’s the attraction. How many other musicians can pull off what she routinely and seemingly randomly plucks from her fertile mind?
19. FRAZEY FORD / “Holdin’ It Down”
WHY WE LOVE IT: This might be the theme song for 2020 for me. I’ve been in a vicious cycle like you. Working at home, living at home, eating at home, trying to be creative at home, fixing up my home, everything at home. All I can do is hold it down and hope for better days ahead. And if I can do it to this mush-mouthed soul anthem, even better. Frazey is the perfect music for getting your home on. (Also see Priest Picks #4)
20. GERRY CINNAMON / “Dark Days”
WHY WE LOVE IT: What if your darkest days actually turn out to be the best days you’re ever gonna have? Perhaps those are the days where love is at its finest. And perhaps that love brings the sun’s rays even in your darkest hours. Maybe it’s a little ham-fisted and simplistic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get you right here (I’m pointing to my heart).
21. BLACK MARKET BRASS / “So What,
Pts 1 & 2”
WHY WE LOVE IT: I’m going to cheat here and combine the final two tracks on the Black Market Brass’s brilliant new record Undying Thirst. They’ve decided to split the track in homage to those great, extended soul singles of the 60s, like Ray Charles and James Brown used to do, but it’s really one masterful 10-minute Afrofunk opus that will blow your mind over and over again.
(See Priest Picks #2 for full review)
22. ROBERT VINCENT / “The Kids Don’t Dig God Anymore”
WHY WE LOVE IT: 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” (almost my choice for this list as well). Now Liverpool’s resident Americana specialist has written another song where the same youth won’t be sold your religious beliefs either. I really wish I was part of a generation that’s defying old conventions and challenging entrenched beliefs. But the good news is you can join in with the kids any time you want. Because, as Robert sings with eyes wide open, “maybe they’re right.”
23. SPARKS / “Lawnmower”
WHY WE LOVE IT: Why so serious? One byproduct of several months detached from humanity is a shift of focus. Which means more attention paid to the things in your immediate surroundings. People are using the time to fix up their houses, make repairs, paint what needs painting, and of course, full-throttle landscaping. (Manscaping, but for your lawn.) I was all about it initially mainly because it got me out of the house and into the fresh air where my lawn and garden apparently reside. And I must say, they’ve never looked better. Many others in my neighborhood have done the same. And so have the boys in Sparks, apparently. “Lawnmower” is just what it promises. A song about a guy and his lawnmower and the perfect yard that emerges as a result. Pride of ownership people!
(See full write-up in Priest Picks #4)
24. THE BOBBY LEES / “Coin”
WHY WE LOVE IT: This is what the Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand” has come to in 2020 and we’re all the better for it!
(See Priest Picks #4 for full write-up)
25. CHELSEA WILLIAMS / “Dust”
WHY WE LOVE IT: We end with an anthem of sorts. Perhaps we can even call it a hymn. “Hallelujah, I’m finally free/Hallelujah, logic lifted me up from my knees.” It’s a glorious, beautiful moment on Chelsea’s great new record and maybe with a little hope and science (and masks), we can all emerge on the other side of everything that has happened in the first half of 2020.
I'll see you all at year-end (if we make out alive) with another list.