|Blazin's Top 40 Songs of 2020|
Keeping on the current list grind; I should have the albums done soon. Carry on with the happy holidays!
50. Black Crown Initiate - "Years in Frigid Light"
49. Neptunian Maximalism - "Nganga"
48. Young Jesus - "Lark"
47. Tricot - "Agenai (Dont' Give)" (Track #6 from the album 10)
46. Unleash the Archers - "Legacy"
45. Kate NV - "Not Not Not"
44. clipping. - "Enlacing"
43. A.A.L. - "With an Addict"
42. Katatonia - "Flicker"
41. Ichiko Aoba - "ohayashi"
While I think Mestarin kynsi is an ever-so-slight step down from the highly underrated Waste of Space Orchestra LP last year, it has provided some high-quality psychedelic black metal. The lead single from the album just happens to be the best from Oranssi Pazuzu yet with spiraling dynamics, wonderful instrumentation, and a great sense of atmosphere throughout every section of the track. It’s about as good as oddball black metal can get.
The Call Within
I’m very glad that I didn’t miss out on this before the end of the year because my favorite jazz record of the year would’ve probably just been GoGo Penguin for a second time. I was hooked on The Call Within from the start with the opener, “Levitation 21”, a dizzying and earwormy jam with a fair share of outstanding production and beautiful melodies. This song’s like a nu-jazz version of Animals as Leaders (one of the members even appears later in the album as a guest feature) except it avoids the main pitfalls of the djent genre enough to make it a real blast.
Yeah, this song’s cheesy as hell and I typically don’t care for this brand of post-rock, but “Nostalgist” struck a chord with me in a way that made the song impossible to not recognize. The guitar particularly sounds nice and the vocals are well done by the guest feature (the Pianos Become the Teeth guy? It’s been a while since The Lack Long After, hasn’t it?). The sentimental lyrics coordinate with the melodramatic instrumentals with enough efficiency to really sell its, ahem, “nostalgia”. Bottomline: it’s a great song if you’re looking for a collaboration between post-rock-turned-emo and emo-turned-post-rock.
Haken are becoming more and more known by the progressive rock community as the “British Dream Theater” considering the theatrical nature of Haken’s work and their similar combinations of hit singles and sprawling epics. I can see those comparisons to an extent, but the biggest difference in that comparison so far is Haken’s general lack of exposure. On Virus, I think the approach to more technical instrumentation might help them get there, but what really gives me faith for them in this endeavor is making more awesome material like “Carousel”. The third track from Virus is a well-rounded epic containing just the right amount of great riffs, jazzy ambient sections, and genuine payoffs of building tension. The vocals are nothing to scoff at either as they manage to make otherwise suspect lyrics really work with the singer’s style.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters
“Fetch the Bolt Cutters”
Fiona Apple deservedly stole the first half of the year in the online indie music scene. Her somewhat literal pots-and-pans approach to instrumentation gave a relatable impression of being limited to homemade compositions during the lockdowns in the Spring. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is one of the more obvious uses of this style on the album, but its lyrical themes fittingly apply to many common struggles, even those that were amplified by the solidarity of the lockdowns. Whether that interpretation of the lyrics is true or not, its success in expressing that interpretation is still a great product of songwriting.
While I wasn’t as big on A.A. Williams new LP as I was on her self-titled EP last year, she’s still got the knack to make gorgeous and emotionally charged singles. On “Melt”, Williams further pushes her mesmerizing brand of goth-tinged post-rock to impressive limits. This song probably has the most replayability out of anything she’s done yet as even the backgrounds synths and horns that appear throughout the song are nice to catch onto on repeated listens. Williams herself does a fantastic job as usual with soaring highs and melancholic lows. The drumming was surprisingly a nice change-of-pace as well.
Caligula’s Horse is one of those newer prog rock bands that is unfortunately too consistently inconsistent for me to really latch onto them. I think I was sort of coming around to them on Rise Radiant, which therefore makes the album arguably my favorite of theirs yet. It’s on this album where their choruses and lead melodies got noticeably better and their progress shows on songs like “Autumn”, a wonderful prog rock ballad with a refreshing mixture of modern prog rock influences. Although the chorus is probably best feature of the song, the parts leading up to them shouldn’t be underlooked as the instrumental passages are pretty and very well-paced.
Thy Catafalque is quickly becoming one of my favorite metal acts of the last decade for their (well, his; it’s a one-man project) unusual, but somewhat traditional approach to synthetic avant-garde metal. "Veto” was a highlight within several great songs that came from the newest album Naiv. The way the song begins and ends with a guitar riff similar to “Crimson” by Edge of Sanity was a nice callback that I think fit well within the confines of its runtime. This track keeps its mischievous 70’s/80’s prog nature at heart with the throwback synth production and the organ feature. Much like the rest of the record it’s on, “Veto” is a fun bit electronic-riddled metal that you won’t find in many other places.
|32||Pure Reason Revolution|
Everything about “Silent Genesis” is about as solid as can get for a poppier progressive rock track such as this, but the production is what really sets this track apart from its peers on both its own album and from other modern prog rock acts. I really appreciate groups that aren’t afraid to be risky and rough around the edges on clean-sounding instrumental themes, and Pure Reason Revolution make excellent use of that confidence to bolster their sound. For an artsy prog rock cut, it’s got a solid bite to it with memorable lyrics and melodies to match. It’s an impressive highlight from an album that sported the band’s extremely impressive comeback this year.
I know that I’ve fallen out of favor for the country genre ever since the bro-country scene blew up, but an occasional single will deservedly gain traction and, inevitably, my attention. What I got out of “Starting Over” was a nostalgic and emotionally impactful callback to all the old honky-tonk country classics I used to be exposed to as a rural-born kid, especially around the several hometown churches I once attended. It’s an optimistic song aware of its boundaries in a way that makes it extremely easy to appreciate. Stapleton does a great job on the delivery and the production by Dave Cobb shows why he’s easily the best in the country business.
Heaven To A Tortured Mind
I wasn’t as keen on Yves Tumor’s new direction as many of his were on his newest album, but I can’t complain too much if we got “Kerosene!” out of the guy’s ventures. It doesn’t quite provide the same level of personal impact as “Lifetime” did, but its addicting intimacy is not to be dismissed. The blues-driven instrumental was a unique and pretty stellar idea to back up the lyrics, especially when the dreamy and psychedelic vocal style and add as the cherry on top. For somebody that likes to dabble in many areas of the psychedelic genre, the bluesy approach on “Kerosene!” seems like it was done by a seasoned veteran in the genre, which is definitely a worthy feat.
Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic
Right out of the gate, the lead single from The Ocean’s next saga in their geology series seems like one of their most enjoyable ones. The first half’s mysterious atmosphere is well-accompanied by carefully placed string sections, harsh piano chords, and risky backup vocal choices that end up steadily supporting the song’s confident attitude. The bridge in the second half is what we’re all here for, though, as it goes straight into a section whose rich guitar tones forces at least some head-bobbing for each listen. What follows is the fairly shocking Deafheaven-style black metal section. It’s quite the tricky move, but it’s built towards and played out pretty much perfectly, which further strengthens the single as one of The Ocean’s most enjoyable in their catalog.
|28||Anna von Hausswolff|
All Thoughts Fly
“All Thoughts Fly”
While I, like many others, still want von Hausswolff to return to her more diverse nature of Dead Magic, I’ll give her props for making a fantastic 12-minute single. There’s just something so engaging about the way those pipe organ chords loop, especially on the back half of the track when the intensity really starts to pick up. It’s rare nowadays for a drone cut to grab my attention, but this song almost always keeps you guessing on what it’s doing to do next or how the loops are going to change in sound. I feel like vocals would have been a nice addition to many of the songs on von Hausswolff’s new album, but this is just one of those ambient tracks where all the beauty is already there.
Welcome to Conceptual Beach
Welcome to Conceptual Beach was the most underrated album of 2020 for its sheer distinctiveness and rich blending of emo, jam rock, and post rock. The album works best as a front-to-back listen, but I think “Meditations” should be mentioned at least for its most amusing moments. The “bickering” between competing woodwinds and guitars becomes an intriguing draw often after the episodes of Jeff Buckley-like vocal deliveries (adding another puzzlingly efficient element to the melting pot). The tempo picks up by the second half to shift into a drum-and-bass-centered instrumental followed by a finishing chant not far off from those found on a post-punk hit. It sounds like a lot for one band to tackle on an album, but, man, do I ever enjoy it.
The Only Way To Reach The Surface
“We Need to Burn Down This Submarine”
French post-hardcore acts really seem to have their stuff together. Birds in Row and now Nord have come through with some of best recent post-hardcore work in years. “We Need to Burn Down This Submarine” is probably the best song either band has released for its awesome leading riff, insanely fun breakdowns, and the occasional quirky genre shifts. It’s a song that I can look forward to jamming every section of as there’s not a dull moment to be had. Even the part where the singer puts such a heavy accent on the word “dinner” is hilarious on every listen. I’m only looking forward for more Nord considering that their LP release this year was just their debut.
Black n’ Roll isn’t a subgenre I hear popped up often, but Kvelertak is apparently one of the few successful examples out there. Splid had a few popular cuts, including one with a Troy Sanders feature, but it’s the penultimate track “Delirium Tremens” that really piqued my interest in the band’s general sound. On this song, the pacing is on-point, the riffs are incredibly solid, and the composition just feels fresh and exciting for using an older punk-tinged rock n’ roll style like they usually do. Although the crazily good guitar playing in the ending is what boosted the repeatability the most, I know all the stuff before it is pretty much impossible to skip.
Microphones in 2020
“Microphones in 2020”
Well, I suppose it’s a little awkward to talk about a song that represents an entire album, so I’ll save most of my discussion on it for the next list. However I will give away one of its qualities here, it is that The Microphones are simply as their best and only in a way they could have been in 2020.
A Romance With Violence
Outlaw black metal is now a thing? If it is, I want more of whatever this band’s doing because A Romance with Violence was an excellently written black metal album with a thick atmosphere. The album even closed out with the best execution of its concept in “Vaudeville”. The best thing this track does is provoke a heavy sense of imagery depicting reserved yet dangerous surroundings familiar with those found in the Wild West. A really cool detour in vocal style occurs at the five-minute mark to emphasize an already implied psychedelic mood to the track before going into more familiar black metal territory on the bridge, which is also spectacularly done.
“Adan no Shima no Tanjyosai”
Despite the comparatively less lush instrumentation of this track to other stuff on the new Ichiko Aoba album, it perfectly fulfills any missed beauty of those other tracks with more intimacy and subtlety. The closer starts with a folky section similar to that found on Aoba’s previous work, but it really starts to bloom once the string section comes in and it’s only more perfected by the flute’s appearance later in the track. The thing I’m in most awe about with this track, however, is its flawless execution at wrapping up the album’s themes and doing them justice. Considering how much I loved everything before it, I was just happy that such a crucial step was perfectly fulfilled.
|21||Pain of Salvation|
I’ve probably played this song more times than it really deserves, but I suppose there are good reasons it gets stuck in my head more than even some of the best tracks that came out this year. “WAIT” is a sneakily catchy prog rock ballad that only Pain of Salvation could’ve made it as engaging as it is. The way the guitar and piano play off each other throughout the whole song is fantastic and their interaction feels extremely natural. The odd time signatures are defining features that contrast the straightforward lyrics very nicely. I’ll also appreciate the production for going the Pure Reason Revolution route of making everything sound so raw and impactful, even on a ballad.
My two country hits on this list are honky-tonk derivatives. No, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I do know that “Only Children” is evidence of Jason Isbell’s continued songwriting success. I think I still prefer “If We Were Vampires” by a slight margin, but Jason Isbell has so many noticeably great country singles at this point I get into double digits counting them all. This song’s a reminiscent and sad ballad that can fit many of our own experiences with old friends and past lives. While I’m not quite at an age where Jason Isbell’s experience with death completely resonates with me, this track humorously makes me feel like I’ve already gotten there.
|19||Lianne La Havas|
Lianne La Havas
Lianne La Havas released the best soul album I’ve heard in a very long time with her new release and the closer was just the perfect finishing touch to everything I loved about that album. The folky angle of the instrumental captures the perfect mood needed to fit the lyrics. La Havas herself, of course, has a captivating and energetic performance. When I thought the album hadn’t delivered me enough goods, the instrumental extension after the second chorus provides an alluring sendoff backed by wonderful production. The themes of self-respect on “Sour Flower” never feel overbearing either and, as previously mentioned, are delivered with sincere confidence.
I thought I grew out of these power metal-influenced prog rock cuts several years ago, but every now and then an absolutely undeniable jam will come along and blow away my expectations. That song was “The Tempest” this year, which has easily become my favorite Caligula’s Horse track. The djenty riffs and tremolo guitar pickings don’t feel stale for once as they’re produced and played to effectively use their innate cheesiness. The synths are a surprisingly welcome addition because the modern element they bring to the table doesn’t overshadow the focal points of the composition: the vocals and the rhythm. There just aren’t any dud moments in the song, which makes it a fitting inclusion for the list of quality 2020 openers.
“Blood Into Oil (Album Version)”
This isn’t the official title of the song, but I think the single version sorely misses the chaos that occurs on the album version’s ending. Therefore, that version is what’s represented on the list. Anyways, “Blood Into Oil” starts off with what hilariously sounds like a post-grunge intro, but that feeling very quickly goes away once you get to hear how sharp the production is. Its distinctive presence is written all over the track from how crushing the guitars sound to how the drums sound like a mixture between an assault rifle and a helicopter. Neither band member screws around, either, regarding brutal atmosphere. They stay true to that atmosphere down to the ending, which sends us off with a haunting piano reprise of the opening riff.
The first “complete” track on Windswept Adan was already prepared to suck into a world of paradise. “Pilgrimage” is an enthralling folk cut that’s simply brimming with beauty. Aoba’s hushed, peaceful vocals joins the orchestral instrumentation in providing the most amount of mystification possible. The central concept of an atmospheric folk song is simple enough, but if it’s pulled off this beautifully, there’s not much more that needs to be done or said.
|15||Run the Jewels|
“Pulling the Pin”
Run the Jewels’ fourth installment was a timely circumstance, recapturing old fans and alluring new ones with heavily relevant themes written in poetic and relatable fashion. As they have for their whole discography, RTJ4 has no shortage of fitting instrumentals to these themes, but gospel/rock mashup in “Pulling the Pin” was the most emotionally impactful for me. On top of that was Mavis Staples’ performance of the chorus in which both it and the lyrics themselves perfectly captured the somber nature of capitalistic faults and inequality struggles. The Josh Homme feature might be an overpay for just backing vocals, but when they’re performed as well as they are on this track, I won’t question it.
Unfold the God Man
I’ll save the argument for the 2018 vs. 2020 release for the next list, but Psychonaut’s new (?) LP took listeners on a sludgy, psychedelic trip through great songwriting and rich production. Everything about this brand of metal was done best on “Sananda”, a sprawling journey including plenty of vocoders and ritualistic ambient sections. Although those are genuinely awesome features, the actual metal parts are a headbob-and-a-half, too, with the slow burning guitar riffage and drum work. Much like “Delirium tremens”, the ending is perfect explosion to cap it all off.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters
“I Want You to Love Me”
Perhaps it’s awkward to put a song least representative of Fetch the Bolt Cutters this high on the list. In addition, this song has apparently been floating around on live sets for a few years now. However, it no less fits in the current timeline and it still makes for a damn good opener. For starters, the main piano lick is so smooth and fits perfectly with the combination of baroque pop and pop rock balladry. “I Want You to Love Me” has my favorite second verse of the year as its incredible delivery by Fiona Apple and introspective lyrics make it difficult to pass by the verse untouched. The ending is like a tension release of that desire for love. Well deserved, Fi.
The All Is One
“N.O.X. I: Circles Around the Sun Pt. 1”
Motorpsycho, the one band that can’t seem to avoid King Crimson comparisons anywhere they go, has become one of my favorite bands of the last decade for easily churning out one great album after another. The All is One is not their best, but it still has colorful and ambitious material on it like “N.O.X. I:…”. The wonderfully produced instrumentation is always a treat to listen to, but I’m really digging the vocal effects that appear throughout most of the song. It’s like a jazzy soundtrack that plays as you’re touring down the River of Styx. It can be frightening and uncanny at times, but it’s a sight to behold nonetheless.
Visions of Bodies Being Burned
Before Ichiko Aoba came around and screwed up all my plans, I had clipping. as the golden sound of 2020. Visions of Bodies Being Burned is one of those endlessly entertaining albums that comes around once in a blue moon. The singles off that album were nothing but fire and “Pain Everyday” is no exception. This song probably had my favorite use of sampling for the year. Everything sounds so delicately placed around the verses and I adore the decision to keep the chorus on a more ambient background. That’s not even mentioning about the breakbeat 7/8 sections that truly transcend the track into greatness for many listeners. Only listening to the song yourself can do it justice, or, rather, listening to Visions of Bodies Being Burned entirely will do the trick.
“Chance” is a song that, according to Billboard, was written for the honor of cartoonist Robert “Chance” Browne. On the surface, that might not be the most ambitious outline of a song, but these guys did with what they had and way, way more. To start, the opening keyboard melody is stunning and D’Agostino does a remarkable job on the vocals. The use of backing vocals throughout is masterful, changing from duets with the lead to acapella style to even background reverse tracking. The swelling string section in the song’s middle now reminds me of why I love stuff like Ichiko Aoba’s new album so much. Sometimes, a song simple sounds too sublime to ignore it.
Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic
My post-metal song of the year has a little more prog flair than some would really be happy with, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was an absolute blast from start to finish. I know everyone’s talking about “Jurassic/Cretaceous”, which is an okay song, but I think “Triassic” stays truer to the post-metal The Ocean moniker I most remember them for. Anyways, I gotta appreciate the slapper of a bass solo that shows up a minute-and-a-half. Both it can the ritualistic cleans in the first verse can fool you for a Tool song, but don’t be mistaken. It’s a whole different monster with some of best sounding guitar work you’ll hear today (the riff at 5:45? Orgasmic). Never has a breakdown felt so satisfying than the one six-and-a-half minutes in. In summary, I loved this at first listen and have loved it since.
What's Your Pleasure?
“What’s Your Pleasure?”
The best pop song of the year is from an obvious album choice, but I resonated much more with the title track over stuff like “Spotlight” and “Soul Control”. “What’s Your Pleasure?” is incredible at selling its sense of sensuality and pleasure. The bass effortlessly glides across the beat, the synth lead is utterly hypnotizing, and Ware’s vocals afterward are seductively enticing. The lyrics ride a perfect balance between suggestiveness and wit that make for just the perfect club anthem. The ending sounds ironically neverending like an 8:00 party at the club that ends up lasting until 6:00 A.M. In that state of mind, there’s no better section to get stuck in your head than that.
|7||Nine Inch Nails|
Ghosts V: Together
“Letting Go While Holding On”
My ambient track of the year is indeed from a guy that’s more known for industrial classics in the 90’s. Weird, I know, but Trent Reznor’s dabbled in film score numerous times and several of his recent works have went in a similar direction, so I could honestly be more surprised. “Letting Go While Holding On” was probably the first song I really got attached to when the lockdowns, at least in my country, were gaining notable steam. Even as a college student with no full-time job to lose or events to cancel, I still felt like I needed some outlet for the impending uncertainties and worries to come. This piece was often the first thing I turned to. It’s a beautiful and haunting progression of a synth line that didn’t leave my head for a while (it was often welcome, of course).
Visions of Bodies Being Burned
“Say the Name”
“Say the Name” should just be the Webster dictionary definition of the word “banger”. The first full song of Visions of Bodies Being Burned kicks off with plenty of attitude and “horrifying” passion in the lyrics. Its apparent edge feels warranted as a fun and memorable, yet no less serious way to paint the larger picture of American injustices. The repeating sample somehow doesn’t get old after several listens, and I think some of that endurance relates to its relevance with the whole album. I had a feeling on the first listen of Visions of Bodies Being Burned that this song would have a huge impact on my recollection of the album, but I couldn’t quite guess I’d love it this much. With all the awful surprises 2020 gave us, this song was one of the sole exceptions.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Elder has had a stellar career so far. Pretty much everything they’ve came out with has at least been solid, and that’s with doing some genre-bending along the way. On “Omens”, they go with the “Motorpsycho with a sludgy vibe” route, which is not only somehow make extremely enjoyable, but it has also grown to be one of my favorite stoner rock songs in recent memory. Nearly every section of this song calls to be considered classic material. The swirling opening, the unforgettable vocal entrance on the first verse, and the entire ending from the seventh minute make for some of my favorite stoner rock/heavy psych moments ever, and for all of that to be on the same song is nothing short of remarkable.
“Sapien” (CERTIFIED CLASSIC)
We’re now getting into the 10/10 material, so I’ll start with the first of 3 (!) closers included in this section. “Sapien”, a low tempo song filled to the brim with atmosphere, shortly became my second most played song of 2020 after the release of Fireworker. I’ll first start with the keyboard playing, which is not only splendidly done but it’s also produced to perfection in every section of the song. Ohme delivers a fantastic vocal performance, which even has a sky-high emotional point at the eleven-minute mark. The second “act” of the song appearing seven minutes in is obviously my favorite section as that’s where the synth work is at top form, the vocals are dream-like, and the power chords that appear are pure bliss. Yes, this track’s a bit of a slow burner, but there aren’t many of these I can go back and find as flawless as this one was.
“Porcelain” (CERTIFIED CLASSIC)
If “Pilgrimage” was just a mere beginning for my infatuation with Ichiko Aoba’s new album, “Porcelain” was the sure-fire confirmation of that infatuation. I don’t know where Aoba got those pedals, but I will swim to Japan to steal them myself because she incorporates those effects perfectly with the wonderous backing instrumentation. Speaking of which, the instrumentation on this is just as superb as its peers on the album, if not moreso. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the song structure in an Ichiko Aoba song, but what I believe is the bridge near the three-minute mark is nothing short of heavenly. Actually, the whole song is. Actually, the whole album is.
“my angel” (CERTIFIED CLASSIC)
This is probably the song on the list that I’ve most recently fallen in love with, so I’ll sometimes question myself as to why I have something so recently attached as the second best song of the year. The answer is somewhat simple: “my angel” is one of the best of these lo-fi folk numbers I’ve ever heard. Perhaps a part of that is because the main guitar line reminds me of a segment from my favorite song of all time, “The Manifold Curiosity” by Kayo Dot, but that line’s sheer frailty with the addition of Lenker’s wispy vocals makes for a most heartbreaking listen. The lyrics are also magnificent as it represents the death of a relationship with large-scale and descriptive effects of nature from the viewpoint of the vocalist (“Far below the rocks and sky”, “Lowers my body down to the land”, “Wake to the bleeding of the blade of the sun”). I have a feeling I’ll be holding this one dear for a long time.
“Swim” (CERTIFIED CLASSIC)
BEST SONG OF 2020
And here we are again, “Swim”. For a song about an outsider living in a harsh world, it was eerily sentimental to the struggles I had faced this year. It’s a song I kept coming back to out of comfort and self-peace. With more and more listens, I could sense my obsession for it grow with the twangy folkness of the guitar work in the song’s first half, the reference-laced lyrics, and the swelling strings of the post-choruses. With that all being said about the song’s first half, I can’t properly prepare myself for the song’s second half. Even if you discuss its compositional aspects, it wouldn’t be a good enough explanation as to why I well up every time the second half plays out. After over 100 listens, the best explanation I can come up with is the sheer power of that movement. It’s like magic or transcendency. Either way, it was improbably powerful enough to make the worst of 2020 tolerable, which is what only the best of 2020 could do.