2020… I mean, what do you say? Between the coronavirus pandemic, nationwide protests, and a long, drawn out presidential election, the country practically lived through an entire verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in only twelve months. And while our lives were impacted in a myriad of devastating ways, the biggest change for me was the complete shutdown of live music venues. That actually made this list a little harder to compile; it’s at live shows that we build more meaningful relationships with the songs we love and experience them in a more direct way from the artists who wrote them, and also where we might hear new songs for the first time. Instead, I mostly found myself listening to the same songs over and over, but apparently it was a diverse enough slate for me to still compile a list of the best 30 of the year.
It was also impossible not to hear a little bit of current events in the songs I listened to this year. Even though very few, if any, of the songs were written explicitly about the virus, they’re still kind of about the pandemic in various ways, shapes, and forms. Listening always involves some form of projection — we apply our own experiences to what we hear and assume that the artists we love must be experiencing the same thing. And while that’s typically a reach, we do know that, to some extent, they were all experiencing the same things as us this year as the world, shut down and humans globally socially distanced. So while we may not be able to have shared these songs together in the same physical space, we were at least all in the same psychic space, and that has to count for something.
Without further ado, The Postrider’s Top 30 Songs of 2020
- “Mark Zuckerberg” – Nap Eyes
On one level, this textbook indie rocker is a welcome finger stuck in the eye of the titular Facebook founder, whose unscrupulousness and incompetence has hastened the spread of dangerous information and further polarized our nation; Nap Eyes lead singer Nigel Chapman (who’s making a serious bid to become his generation’s Jonathan Richman) stone-facedly mocks Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of hand movement and his dirt collecting hobby as his band reliably plugs away behind him. On another level, the image that Chapman leaves us with — a bunch of teenagers having the time of their life smoking weed in the woods — reminds us to get offline and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. In otherwords, fuck Mark Zuckerberg and go outside.
- “yellow is the color of her eyes” – Soccer Mommy
I wasn’t quite as taken with Soccery Mommy’s Color Theory as a lot of other people (I much more of a Clean person myself), but this elegiac centerpiece is pure 90s-inspired melancholy, and about as successful a revival of the Clinton-era alt rock sound that you’ll find. About the terminal illness of Sophie Allison’s mother, there’s real sadness and malaise here, but a sense of hope and gratitude as well.
- “Run for the Country” – The Replacements
“Run for the Country” — which was included in a deluxe reissue of The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me — is the first of two songs on this list that was written and recorded well before 2020, but not released until this year. And yet, it couldn’t feel more timely. Paul Westerberg pleads through this barroom ballad for his lover to join him in the good old countryside away from the ugly, dirty, crowded city to a place of pastoral bliss, an change in scenery many young Americans sought for themselves as the coronavirus pandemic enveloped the nation’s cities. Westerberg promises sun dappled hills, beautiful sheets of Minnesota snow, and the wind combing your hair — but this is a Replacements song, after all, and Westerberg’s would be farmwife’s unclear decision gives the song a sense of quiet yearning and desperation, turning a sure thing into a series of sweet nothings and impossible promises slurred into the ears of a childhood sweetheart and a hometown bar. Sure, you can always go home again, but what’ll be left for you when you do?
- “Isabella” – Hamilton Leithauser
Hamitlon Leithauser wasn’t able to recapture the highs of his and Rostam’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine with this year’s The Loves of Your Life, but he reached literal new vocal highs on “Isabella,” where he uses his falsetto to explore the life of a kind of NYC-bound free spirit that feels very 2000s in its romance and lightness. But The country tinged arrangement, with its standout pedal steel guitar, makes the song feel timeless, and Leithauser is a savvy enough songwriter to realize that the key in making a song like this work is the sense of longing, which he brings home with his trademarked yowls in the coda. Few artists of his era are transitioning into elder statesmen status as well as this guy.
- “Delete Forever” – Grimes
Grimes has always emphasized the synthetic nature of her music, giving off the sense that her dark synth-pop is made by a digital avatar rather than a living, breathing person. It was a little surprising, then, to hear her go in a more tangible direction on “Delete Forever,” the high point of February’s Miss Anthropocene. Singing from the perspective of an opioid addict, Grimes sets acoustic instruments like guitar, banjo, and violin against an electronic drum kit and her own vocal samples to create an earthy, desolate atmosphere that makes the listener hyper aware of their fragile physical state and and the fleeting, tenuous nature of life itself. It’s a reminder that we’re just a few bad choices away from ending up in the dirt — and that for some of us, that coming as close to that point of no return as possible holds a sinister appeal.
- “The Steps” – HAIM
A friend of mine texted me once to tell me that she was listening to HAIM in the car with her mother who eventually turned to her and asked “what is this supposed to be, Wilson Phillips?” That comparison may feel a little harsh, but it does reveal a core truth about HAIM which is that they are not, by many traditional measures, a “cool” band. In fact, they’re unabashed embrace of what can sometimes feel like warmed over versions of already warmed over 90s classic rock rehashes has always kind of been part of the appeal! And no song better encapsulates that than “The Steps,” a song built around three different guitar riffs — one rubbery, one acoustic, one pseudo-bluesy — that skips around with a deceptively sunny keep-on-keepin’ on attitude that will make all of our future children roll their eyes. But behind all the “if I go left and you go right” and “everyday I wake up and make money for myself” is a frustrated, determined narrator — one who’s done everything they possibly can to make a relationship work despite a lack of effort or straight up disinterest from the other party. Come for the cheesy guitar riffs, stay for pained, aching verses that threaten to float away from the song entirely, and the killer conclusion: “Do you understand?”/”You don’t understand me”
- “Kawasaki Backflip” – Dogleg
I have a complicated relationship with shouty, cathartic, hardcore-adjecnt bands that emerged in the latter half of the 2010s in the sense that, well, I tend not to like them, or at least I don’t like them as much as I should. For every Titus Andronicus and Fucked Up, there’s a Cymbal Eats Guitars or a Jeff Rosenstock that I’ve never really been able to get into, and that ambivalence turns into straight up distaste when you factor in bands with a more pronounced emo influence like Oso Oso and glass beach. I thought I was going to end up in at least the ambivalence zone with Dogleg, but then I listened to “Kawasaki Backflip” a few hundred times and wound up genuinely appreciating it. Maybe it’s the opening drum roll, maybe it’s the guitars that remind me of David Comes to Life, maybe it’s “Will you be the fire on the wind?,” maybe it’s because “Kawasaki Backflip” very accurately describes what it sounds like. Either way, this track provided me with a very welcome respite to the sad folk songs I listened to this year, and made me wish I had the opportunity to listen to this song while standing around in a sweaty club and avoid a mosh pit like I do whenever I see one of these bands play live.
- “My Own Soul’s Warning” – The Killers
For years, Brandon Flowers has been talking about how he wants to be the next Bruce Springsteen, and while The Killers have made some slouches in that direction over the years, but they’ve always felt too rooted in synth-pop and new wave to really crack the code — until “My Own Soul’s Warning,” that is. Sure, this song is almost definitely a riff on The War On Drugs, who oftentimes feel like one big 80s Springsteen tribute band, but it’s also an impressive reinvention of The Killers as a synth flecked heartland rock group. They’ve turned away their attention from the neon lights of their hometown of Las Vegas and towards the desert that surrounds it in an effort to find freedom and romance, and in fact realized that songs about trying and failing to find freedom and romance make the best Springsteen-esque singalongs after all.
- “All Tomorrow’s Carry” — Special Interest
“Aren’t we going out tonight?” That’s a sentence that should feel like inviting, even exciting, but in a world where gathering in a bar could spell death for a bunch of people you don’t know, it can sound whiny, selfish, and manipulative. What “All Tomorrow’s Carry,” a driving slice of fucked up dance punk from New Orleans’ Special Interest supposes, is that there’s always been a sense of maliciousness behind that phrase, especially as America’s cities become hollowed out pleasure centers for the upper class at the expense of its lower income residents. The great irony of course is that, fucked up as it is, “All Tomorrow’s Carry” is an absolute banger. Making good on the open verse’s promise of a “kick snare and a driving beat,” this track’s churning baseline and mechanized guitar riffs sound like a city crumbling in real time, all while a warehouse party from hell rages on in the background. Thanks to COVID, we all got a sense of what dystopia might look like. Thanks to Special Interest, we know what it sounds like, too.
- “Separate Ways” – Neil Young
Another song that was technically written and recorded well before 2020, “Separate Ways” is the lead track from Neil Young’s Homegrown, which was originally recorded in the mid-1970s after his breakup with Carrie Snodgrass. If I were to do this list over again, I might place it a bit lower — the lyrics are essentially a more eloquent of version of “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,” which is actually a fairly original take for a breakup song — but it gets ranked here because of its instrumental. Held together gently by a tight but spacious rhythm section that the guitars, harmonica, and vocals lightly float on top of, “Separate Ways” feels like it predicted the likes of indie folk rock bands Big Thief and their contemporaries, a strikingly modern example of the form 50 years ahead of its time.
- “to Perth, before the border closes” — Julia Jacklin
Speaking of Neil Young, Julia Jacklin kept up her streak of being most effective channeler of the Canadian legend’s style into 2020 with melancholy, basically-about-the-coronavirus-but-not-really-about-the-coronavirus ballad. A song about escaping to the city of your youth, the song’s soft swelling guitars and recitations of “everything changes” felt appropriate for a world where nothing felt certain anymore, and the urban experiences of our younger years felt like a fonder memory. Even the positive spin Jacklin puts on her strategic retreat “I got a feeling I won’t be doing it alone” comes with a qualifier — “It’s just a feeling though.”
- “Maybe I” – 2nd Grade
Most of 2nd Grade’s Hit to Hit features earnest but playful power pop nuggets that combine Guided By Voices’s pep and brevity with Wilco’s inherent gentleness and good will. “Maybe I” is probably the most gentle of the gentle tracks, even if it is the lightly stomping percussion that makes it work. Peter Gill’s self-deprecating lyrics and sunsetting guitars are pure Tweedy, while the melody and vocal timbre is pure Beach Boys, making this track feel like a snippet of a lost Pet Sounds track. Ok, maybe that last comparison is a little unfair. After all, Brian Wilson and the boys wish they could write a song this intimate and aching.
- “Without You” – Perfume Genius
This moonlit country song is a study in the contradiction that inhabits all great songwriting, about how even songs that describe satisfaction allude to the onetime absence of such satisfaction, and the very real possibility that such satisfaction will be absent again at some point in the future. “Without You,” about a brief respite from Perfume Genius mastermind Michael Hadreas’s body dysmorphia, attempts to bottle in that satisfaction to but can’t do so without letting a little bit of longing and melancholy slip in, because like all music he recognizes that this feeling is fleeting and ephemeral, as easy to lose as it is to come by. Such is the pain of all pop music.
- “IM A FREAK CUZ IM ALWAYS FREAKED OUT” – Black Dresses
2020 was not a fun year — social distancing protocols necessitated by a global pandemic forced most of us to retreat into hour homes nearly 24/7, and a lot of us spent that time at home mainlining social media and news feeds about all of the bad stuff that was happening not only with the pandemic, but also social unrest, a contentious election, and the total upending of life as we know it. “IM A FREAK CUZ IM ALWAYS FREAKED OUT” is the perfect sonic simulation about what it’s like to live in that environment. Blaring guitars pierce through the singers struggle to be nice and “cute and well adjusted,” causing them to become so unhinged that they begin to question how language even works. Adolescent angst evolves with every generation, and while I’m no Zoomer, I imagine that Black Dresses have keyed in on what it means to be wracked with fear, anger, and self-doubt in the extremely online age.
- “Boomer” – Bartees Strange
There are a lot of great tracks on Bartees Strange’s debut full length Live Forever and most of them would be worthy of this list, but none of them encapsulates what makes the album so exciting as “Boomer.” Featuring DaBaby style verses over twinkling guitars and an uptempo rock beat before morphing into a Benjamin Booker style chorus, “Boomer” is Live Forever’s proof of concept, the song that demonstrates that country, rap, and rock can join forces for a purpose higher than an “Old Town Road”-style novelty song. Its country-fried outro puts the finishing touches on Strange’s musical mosaic, and hammers home the attitude that makes his bold pop songwriting experiments possible. He’s already seen a lot of shit, he can’t worry about what one song is going to make you think of him.
- “Bad Decisions” – The Strokes
Should I be depressed that the one time saviors of rock had to resort to interpolating a decades-old Billy Idol song to write their most memorable song in ten years? Maybe, but I don’t care. The greatness of the Strokes was that they made mindless yet pretentious hedonism sound cool for the first time since grunge, and while this may feel less sexy and dangerous than, say, “12:51” or “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” “Bad Decisions” it’s still a perfect song to bar hop to, back when, you know, you could actually bar hop.
- “Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider” — 2nd Grade
“Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider” is perfect bubblegum songwriting without any other guiding logic outside of taking things to their natural conclusion, even when that seems a step too far. The “A,B,C and 1,2,3” rhyming scheme ending with “G, H, I, and 7,8,9” is almost hilarious in its predictability, as is the insistence that they not only name check Easy Rider star Dennis Hopper, but also Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, and add a motorcycle sound effect for good measure. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of deeper meaning to this song, but does there need to be? It’s catchy, memorable, and efficient, just like all great pop songs are, no matter how mindless their lyrics may be.
- “Kyoto” — Phoebe Bridgers
Nearly every touring rock musician ends up writing a song about how much being on the road sucks, a box Phoebe Bridgers checked this year with “Kyoto.” This being a Phoebe Bridgers song, though, it also subverts our expectations of the road song, recounting a phone call the singer has with her wayward father in Japan and how his memory creeps in while she’s looking at all of the country’s landmarks. Much in the way the peppy rock instrumentation and horns conceal what’s a truly sad song, Bridgers ruminates on the way that one’s frustration with the road, and really any job, merely act as a mask for life’s true frustrations, pains, and traumas. We occupy ourselves with them so we don’t have to think about them, but they’re lingering and threatening to ruin our day just the same.
- “Fake Grass” – Rookie
At its start, “Fake Grass” feels a bit melancholy — a songwriter’s reflection on the difficulty of trying to find a new home, the barroom piano and Skynyrd-esque slide guitar can make it sound like a lonely drunk’s lament. But right after the singer shrugs “Since we all play guitar we might as well be friends” and the band builds up to the coda, the rest of the group joins in with one harmonized “oooooo” before making space for closing guitar solo, providing us with the unity that the song spends most of its runtime searching for. Finding your “people” can be tough, and you may not even realize you’ve found them at first, but it can lead to something beautiful, like this song. That it demands to be sung in a dive bar while you hold a PBR in one arm and your best buddy in the other only adds to the effect.
- “anything” – Adrianne Lenker
Just when you think Adrianne Lenker has come up with every possible combination with which to cascade acoustic guitars over her whispery vocals, she comes up with another way to cascade acoustic guitars over her whispery vocals. Hopelessly romantic, “anything” stands out from the rest of Lenker and Big Thief’s death obsessed catalogue by being hopelessly romantic for once, even if there is a dog bite and familial drama for good measure. But outside of a few verses, “anything” is all sun dried clothing, juicy mangos, and the smell of pine and a campfire, reminisces of an idealized, rustic romance before the relationship’s eventual deterioration. Lenker’s desire to block out the world and lay in her lover’s lap is of course relatable — who hasn’t wanted to shut out the rest of the world and ensconce themselves in a cocoon of domestic bliss — but “anything” is also a confession that to do so is to deny everything in a relationship that isn’t working, to pretend that in a vacuum, everything would work. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a vacuum. Fortunately, Adrianne Lenker can make us feel like we do every once in a while.
- “She’s There” – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s best songs are studies in focused intensity — potent combinations of effective lyrical choices and invigorating guitar riffs that mix together for pure indie rock bliss. Their arrangements have gotten a little less ambitious and a little poppier over the years, but as “She’s There” proves, they haven’t lost their fastball just yet. This song is full of regret and anxiety — but regret and anxiety that make you feel weirdly cool, probably because you’re also a “full bottle in” to whatever it is you drink as you obsessively read over old letters and lament the obsessive rolling over of time. I feel like bands from Australia have a reputation for being chill and breezy, but RBCF’s best songs are always about frustration, and exercising that frustration through motorik drum beats and snaking guitar parts. I have no idea what “All my accidents, breathe in time” means, but I know it sounds cool as hell to repeat over and over again before the band loads up for another rocket launched coda.
- “Can’t Do Much” – Waxahatchee
Waxahatchee describes “Can’t Do Much” as an “extremely unsentimental love song,” and she’s not wrong — when you gaze into your lover’s eyes, you don’t want to see them “roll around like dice on the felt,” and the song’s title is Katie Crutchfield’s response to the realization that she “Loves you that much anyhow.” And yet the instrumental and Crutchfield’s imagery are so sweet and smooth (“When you see me, I’m honey on a spoon”) that it still creates a sense of invitation and warmth. Pop music is filled with songs meant to sound like perfect little love songs when in fact they’re anything but, but “Can’t Do Much” is the opposite — an attempt to convey frustration and exasperation that none the less comes off as loving and homey because, whether Crutchfield recognizes it or not, those feelings supersede whatever little things may be annoying her about her relationship. As a music critic I’m supposed to value variety, but if every song in the world sounded this rootsy and pure, I wouldn’t be able to complain.
- “Look To” – Ratboys
Printer’s Devil had songs that were deeper and more complicated, but I can’t deny the simple and resonant pleasures of “Look To,” the most straightforward rocker any artist of consequence put out this year. The scant lyrics could really be about anything — the physical and cognitive decline of a parent, the loss of a friend, or just growin’ up and being an adult — but let’s face it: in an election year, “But I don’t want to choose”/“I just don’t know who to look to” resonated with anybody who was frustrated with the political status quo and searched in vain for a satisfying solution. It’s also a formal accomplishment, taking the most satisfying elements of emo and pop-punk (the driving rhythm section, charing power chords, catchy chorus) while shaving away the worst parts (whiny vocals) and mixing them with a dynamic structure (the brief acoustic guitar in the second verse, the thrashing coda) to produce a song that’ll perfectly accompany trashing a hotel room, and make you think at the same time.
- “Ladies” – Fiona Apple
While much was made about how Fetch the Bolt Cutters focused on Fiona Apple’s relationships with women, not enough people zeroed in on “Ladies,” her most direct and expansive take on the subject. The track begins with a sense of menace — repeating the same word four times has never felt like so much of a threat — but then the bassline ascends and the piano kicks in, and what once felt like a threat becomes an invitation. Apple encourages the future lovers of her ex to treat themselves to the kitchenware, toiletries, and clothes that she’s left behind at his place, hoping to forge some sort of connection, and an irony sets in. It seems like all these women would be great friends, and yet the only reason they’re connected is because of a man that each of them covet. This should be a recipe for romantic rivalry, but Apple sees it as an opportunity for solidarity — lovers come, lovers go, there’s no reason why the opposite ends of a would-be love triangle can’t be friends. This idea is more or less explored in more serious tracks like “Newspaper,” but on “Ladies” Apple keeps it playful, where she has a field day exploring every facet of her voice and never singing a verse or a chorus the same way twice, a perfect encapsulation why every one of her albums is waited for with bated breath.
- “Lilacs” — Waxahatchee
Saint Cloud was recorded after Katie Crutchfield ended a stint in rehab and it shows — the record as a whole feels richer, brighter, and fuller than many of her previous (still excellent) efforts, and none of the tracks on the album reflects that shift as sharply as “Lilacs.” No longer hiding behind lo-fi production or alt-rock revivalism, Crutchfield adds shades of gray to the portrait she’s of herself she presented to us through her songs for the past decade, synthesizing her Southern roots with the her indie rock chops and finally coming to terms with her demons, and what she finds is that time waits for no man, and the mere process of being in human and living takes a toll on us all. But with that toll and that toil comes the promise of renewal, of filling that vase of lilacs back up with water to refresh them and keep them in full, brilliant bloom. Few songs bloom as brilliantly as this one.
- “Graceland Too” – Phoebe Bridgers
Though fiercely progressive in their politics and attitudes, there’s always been something about Phoebe Bridgers and songwriters of her ilk that’s been fairly traditionalist, as well. Whether it’s a song like boygenius’ “Ketchum, ID” or the group’s cover of The Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away,” you always knew Bridgers had a great country song in her, and she finally gave it to us with “Graceland Too.” Abandoning the rest of Punisher’s modern production choices and choosing to surround herself with acoustic guitar, banjo, and fiddle, “Graceland Too”’s success lies not only in its invocation of the music of America’s past and the King of Rock and Roll as a savior and a guide, but in the way the typically ghostly, distant sounding Bridgers all of a sudden feels very present and alive as she gives all of her love to someone without the ability to love themselves, a modern encapsulation of the misery, desolation, and, yes, hope that country music has explored for nearly a century.
- “Summertime” — Orville Peck
I first heard “Summertime” during an Instagram live performance Orville Peck streamed right at the beginning of the pandemic, before it was officially released and when social distancing felt like it was going to last a month or two at most instead of nearly a year. In that time, “Summertime” morphed from being merely the lead single to Peck’s Show Pony EP to an anthem for a summertime lost, a tribute to the good times and freedom that feel so far away right now. We’ll all meet again, and have plenty of time to indulge in Peck’s vision of spacious, darkly beautiful Americana, but until then, keep on rockin’ baby, keep on ridin’ on the tide.
- “Kerosene!” — Yves Tumor
The 2010s were the year of the “is rock dead?” column, and while anyone who pays attention would recognize that rock music is thriving underground and off the charts, I’m not gonna lie, the genre’s taken a few hits. Which is why it was so gratifying, as a longtime rock fan, to hear the experimental artist Yves Tumor record the most straight up arena rock song in years. “Kerosene!” is not a particularly deep or complicated song — it almost feels like an oversell to describe it as a “duet” with singer-songwriter Diana Gordon — but it is powerful, taking square aim at your gut and your groin and nailing the shot. The lyrics are sweet and hot nothings, the production steamy, and the myriad of guitar solos a welcome release of erotic energy that demand to be played to a stadium of screaming fans. It’s a vindication of rock as an art form and the guitar as an instrument, hopefully ushering in a renaissance and reassessment of the form. I mean, it probably won’t. But a boy can dream.
- “Janey Needs a Shooter” — Bruce Springsteen
The problem with becoming a legacy artist like Bruce Springsteen is that, at some point, people just want to hear the hits, and the reason they want to hear the hits is because your newer stuff is typically not as good as the hits. So it should be no surprise that Bruce decided to dust off an old unrecorded tune he was working on in the 70s for Letter to You, his best album in 15 years, and given the quality of his 70s output, it should be no surprise that its one of the best songs of the year, and already one of the best of the decade. The best Springsteen songs have always been impressionistic melodramas of the American dream, and “Janey Needs a Shooter” is no different — alienated by the men in her life who represent institutions that could help her but fail to understand her (her doctor, her priest, a neighborhood cop), Janey has only Bruce to turn to, the shooter who knows her style. There’s an open endedness to this song, however; Janey needs a shooter, but that’s all according to Bruce, and Bruce understands her style, but that’s, again, all according to Bruce. Read one way the song becomes just another fantasy and tale of unrequited love, more about the desire to live unreliant on society than actually doing so, a search for an ideal rather than the realization of one, adding that little dose of melancholy that makes these kinds of songs work so well.
- “I Know the End” — Phoebe Bridgers
There’s no need to sugarcoat it — the past 12 months or so have felt apocalyptic. A deadly pandemic continues to kill people worldwide, the economy tanked, and America is at its most politically unstable moment since at least the 1960s. So it’s only fitting that the best song of the year dealt with apocalyptic themes, as well. I already wrote at length about this song in my review of Punisher so I’ll avoid retrodding the same ground, but needless to say “I Know the End” is not only a perfect encapsulation of the times in which it was written, it’s also an awe-inspiring work of art, taking a typical Phoebe Bridgers song and slowly building it into a horns-assisted, quasi-metal track centered around the singer’s primal screams. It’s stirring and overwhelming, at once fatalistic and optimistic, and presents the prospect of facing certain doom as a moment for solidarity. Although the myriad of voices who join Bridgers in chanting “the end is near” and the first scream fade away until it’s just bridgers herself, at first ear shattering, and later quiet and hoarse, there’s still some sense of hope in that final scream — that as long as life exists somewhere in the universe, there’ll be something to rage against the dying of the light.