2020 was an abnormally abysmal year. Even with everything that everyone around the globe has been dealing with, we were treated to an abnormally stellar year of music. This wasn’t just limited to a certain genre or demographic either. Veteran artists like Fiona Apple, The Strokes and Destroyer all released some of the best music of their careers. Reliable standbys like Washed Out, Perfume Genius and Waxahatchee did as well. Then there was the new crop of talent such as Black Country, New Road and Bartlees Strange that unfortunately had to release brand new music during a global pandemic, and wowed us all.
We can’t remember a week going by this year where we weren’t floored by at least one new song that came out. Hopefully we are seeing some light at the end of the very long and dark tunnel of 2020 but out of the many things to come out of our shared experiences this year is that 2021 should have more than its fair share of challenging, cathartic and catchy songs by veteran and reliably consistent artists as well as the newbies we have yet to discover. In the meantime, while we process the last twelve months, here are Northern Transmissions Top 30 Singles of 2020.
The Strokes – “The Adults Are Talking”
The first track off of The Strokes aptly titled The New Abnormal was just the song to get us hooked for what was to come with the rest of the album. The looped out drum beat, dueling guitars parts and Julian Casablanca’s hushed delivery all set the stage to the bands best offering in years.
Thundercat – “Black Qualls”
Thundercat released his phenomenal album It Is What It Is back in April, which feels like a decade ago at the point, and it has remained a consistent go to for us since then. The lead single “Black Qualls” was just one of the album’s many highlights. With appearances by past and present r&b and funk legends Steve Lacy and Steve Arrington as well as Childish Gambino, the track about what it means to be a young Black American in this moment, is a beautiful mediation that is set to some of the most awe inspiring musicianship to come along all year.
Adrianne Lenker – “anything”
When Big Thief’s 2020 tour got cancelled because of the pandemic, lead vocalist Adrianne Lenker came home and took off to a secluded cabin in Massachusetts and recorded two amazing solo albums, songs and instrumentals. Both record’s contain some of the warmest sounding production we heard all year and songs highlight the stellar “anything”, is the coziest feeling heartbreak anthem we can remember hearing. Dealing with the emotions of a breakup, when Lenker sings, “I don’t wanna be the owner of your fantasy, I just want to be part of your family” will leave you shattered.
clipping. – “Say The Name”
The rap three piece followed up last years amazing There Existed An Addiction To Blood with its sequel album, Visions Of Bodies Being Burned, that hits just as hard. The lead single, “Say The Name” blasts right out of the gates with an homage to the geto boys “Mind Is Playing Tricks On Me” with the repeated phrase, “Candlesticks In The Dark, Visions Of Bodies Being Burned” and manage to make it seem even more sinister than when Scarface said that line back in 1991.
Perfume Genius – “On The Floor”
Perfume Genius has been releasing great music for years but 2020’s Set My Heart On Fire Immediately may be his best yet. “On The Floor” with it’s skittering disco feel is one of those rare songs that can get you dancing around your living room while simultaneously crying. Highlighting the maddening, solitary aspects of desire, the song features some amazing lyrics, such as “How long ’til this washes away? How long ’til my body is safe? How long ’til I walk in the light? How long ’til this heart isn’t mine?” It is truly a masterclass in songwriting.
Khruangbin – “So We Won’t Forget”
Khruangbin has been defying critics to pigeonhole them since their first album came out in 2015. While not easy to define, and that may be the point, the Houston based three piece make the type of music that will make you feel like you couldn’t care less about what to call it. “So We Won’t Forget” will float into your head like a dream, and with its bobbing bass groove and relaxed vocal melodies, it should end up living rent free in there for a very long time.
Dehd – “Loner”
There are many highlights on Dehd’s excellent 2020 release Flower Of Devotion but one of the best was “Loner”. The Chicago based three piece crafts the most minimal music that packs the biggest punch. Emily Kempf’s yelps are just the cherry on top of what is already an absolutely unforgettable song.
Hum – “Waves”
Hum hadn’t released any new music in twenty two years and besides a couple of short tours in 2015, haven’t really been a band since they initially disbanded in 2000. This year they announced and released the excelled Inlet in July and it was clear from an initial listen to the single “Waves” that they haven’t missed a beat in their absence. You can still hear why bands like The Deftones and Deafheaven cite Hum as a major influence and, even if this is a one off or if there is more to come, it is just nice to have them back.
Porridge Radio – “Give/Take”
Porridge Radio released their debut album, the great Every Bad, for Secretly Canadian on March 13th just as things were starting to lock down and it sure was a nice distraction. The British band’s take on indie pop comes with its share of nineties touchstones but manages to stand firmly as it’s own thing. “Give/Take” was one of the record’s highlights and remains consistently in our headphones.
Soccer Mommy – “circle the drain”
Soccer Mommy just managed to get her new album, Color Theory, out at the end of February just before the world closed down and because of this it may have not registered on many music fans radars. That’s unfortunate because the album is a great next step for Sophie Allison as an artist. Produced by Gabe Wax, the record is more sonically impressive than her debut “Clean” but her songwriting is just as tight and heartbreaking.
Bartees Strange – “Mustang”
Bartees Strange, AKA Bartees Leon Cox Jr, released one of the best surprises of the year with his album Live Forever. The record shows a new artist on the verge of breaking through and it is a shame that it had to come out during a time when he couldn’t tour and show the world just what he is capable of. The lead single “Mustang” is huge. All swirling synths and air tight drumming, the song may be an arena sized banger but it is all heart. When Strange sings, “Last night I got so fucked up, near lost my job/It’s nice to think that folks are near, waking up was hard this year” it feels like the perfect summation of what most of us all have been feeling all year long.
Arlo Parks – “Black Dog”
Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho had embarked on her first healing tour in February of this year but couldn’t complete it due to the pandemic but luckily that didn’t stop fans and critics alike from devouring the singles she released from her upcoming album Collapsed In Sunbeams, which is due to drop January 29th. Marinho says that “Black Dog”, named for Winston Churchill’s term for depression, was written to make people who are struggling with mental illness feel less isolated and, with everything that happened this year, it was truly a stabilizer for all of us.
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – “Frank Lucas”
Freddie Gibbs is one of the best rappers to grab the medium. This was proven again this year with the release of Alfredo, the collaborative album between Gibbs and producer The Alchemist. Clocking in at only 35 minutes, the record provides a blueprint for what modern hip hop should sound like. While so much of the album could’ve ended up on this list, the single “Frank Lucas”, based on the Harlem drug trafficker made famous by Denzel Washington in the film American Gangster and with a guest spot from Benny The Butcher, was one of the tightest.
Washed Out – “Time To Walk Away”
Ernest Greene has been crafting the chillest of chill wave cuts as Washed Out since 2009 and with this year’s Purple Noon has made his finest record yet. Inspired by the works of Patricia Highsmith and their settings in 1960’s Mediterranean, Purple Noon is all golden hour sunsets that capture the feeling of love filtered through a daydream and the single “Time To Walk Away’ is a perfect example of this.
Phoebe Bridgers – “ICU”
This was another banner year for Phoebe Bridgers. After topping critics lists the last three years with her debut and collaborative albums, her sophomore release Punisher has rightfully catapulted her toward super stardom. The album is as close to perfect as an album can be and the single “ICU” distills all of Bridger’s gifts with lyricism, musicianship and production to its core. Breathtaking stuff.
Future Islands – “For Sure”
Future Islands became a household name with their Letterman performance in 2014 but have stuck around because they certainly know they way around a hook or two. Their newest album As Long As You Are is as endearing as it is catchy and single “For Sure” is sure to perk your ears up with it’s next level bopping bass line and most soaring of choruses. It is such a blast.
The Koreatown Oddity – “Weed In LA”
Dominique Purdy released his fourth and best LP this year with the tightly focused autobiography Little Dominiques Nosebleed. The album is a perfect portrait of what it was like for Purdy growing up in Koreatown in Los Angeles and it presents a gifted talent who isn’t afraid of getting personal. The record’s lead single “Weed In LA” is the perfect entry point for anyone looking to get into Purdy’s world and stands alone as a song and not just one part of the bigger picture that Purdy has created.
Gum Country – “Somewhere”
Courtney Garvin of The Courtneys recently relocated from Vancouver to Los Angeles and with her new bandmate, multi instrumentalist Connor Mayer, in Gum Country has crafted the perfect album to listen to while you acclimate yourself to new surroundings. While many of most of our “new surroundings” this year have just been our living rooms, Gum Country’s twangy brand of psychedelia became a perfect soundtrack to our isolation and a great way to help us cope our way through it.
Destroyer – “Cue Synthesizer”
Dan Bejar continued his track record of releasing great music this year with his album Have We Met. Produced by New Pornographers bandmate John Collins, Have We Met has an uneasiness to it that kind of perfectly suits the year we’ve all just gone through and on single “Cue Synthesizer”, Bejar punctuates the iciness with a slapped bass line and a groove that will, before you even know it, have your head bopping and thinking simultaneously.
Jenny Lewis & Serengeti – “Unblu”
While lockdowns kept everyone separated this year, some unlikely artists used the time to collaborate remotely. Not talking about Taylor Swift and Aaron Dressner here but Jenny Lewis and Dave Cohn aka Serengeti. The pair spent their quarantines sending tracks between Lewis’s LA Home and Cohn’s Chicago one and the first taste of the fruits of that labour is the moving and mellow “Unblu”. Based around a minimal piano and beat arrangement with Cohn’s spoken word baritone holding it all down until Lewis comes in with the song’s dreamy hook.
Bully – “Where To Start”
Alicia Bognanno has the best voice in rock n roll and proves it once again on the new Bully album SUGAREGG. The album’s lead single “Where To Start” is a ripper. All distorted bass and chiming guitars through the verses until the chorus absolutely explodes with Bognanno’s voice rising up over the blast. Cathartic and inspiring, “Where To Start” IS the Rock song of the year.
Fiona Apple – “Shameiika”
It’s always a treat when Fiona Apple releases new music and she couldn’t have timed her new album more perfectly. One of the best songwriters and players of her or any generation, the new record Fetch The Bolt Cutters is bold, brash and innovative even in the context of Apple’s own discography. “Shameika” based on a real life experience Apple had with some childhood bullies when the titular Shameika stepped in and stood up for her, is a rollicking piano driven delight that can make us all feel like our own Shameika in this and any other terrible moments in our lives moving forward.
Christian Lee Hutson – “Get The Old Band Back Together”
Christian Lee Hutson is a unique songwriter in that he can make you laugh out loud one moment and then literally make you never want to leave your bed again the next. When he is at his finest, he can make you feel both of these emotions at once. On the single “Get The Band Back Together”, off of his brilliant, Phoebe Bridgers produced debut album Beginners, Hutson highlights the most embarrassing aspects of being a musician while also celebrating them and it’s amazing to watch him walk this tightrope and then perfectly stick the landing.
Narrow Head – “Stuttering Stanley”
Jacob Duarte of Houston based alternative band Narrow Head had a stutter growing up and, because of it was often called Stuttering Stanley. That also happens to be the name of the bands second single off of their great 2020 album 12th House Rock. Definitely indebted to nineties bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Narrow Steps offer their version of this throwback sound with its requisite swirling, distorted guitars and pummelling drums but still manage to make it sound fresh.
Waxahatchee – “Can’t Do Much”
This was a big year for artists who have consistently released great albums to put out their best record yet and Katie Crutchfield did just that with the new Waxahatchee record Saint Cloud. On the album, Crutchfield’s great songwriting was brought into sharper focus with some phenomenally warm production courtesy of producer Brad Cook. The record’s third single “Can’t Do Much” is a realistic look at trying your hardest to settle into a romantic relationship and as she sings in the song’s third verse, it’s ‘honey on a spoon’.
Peel Dream Magazine – “Dialetics”
Named for the famed British DJ, John Peel, Peel Dream Magazine is exactly how its name describes it, a dream. Based out of Brooklyn, the band delves into shoegaze-y drone on their sophomore album, Agitprop Alterna. Their single, “Dialectrics” is a hypnotic masterclass that floats on with the same kind of charm that bands like My Bloody Valentine and Broadcast had exemplified before them.
PUP – “Rot”
PUP released their last full length, the great Morbid Stuff, in 2019 and this year followed that album up with a six song release of outtakes from the same recording sessions. The EP, This Place Sucks Ass, finds the band at its highest level of popularity and explores how they seem to be dealing with it. On “Rot”, lead singer Stefan Babcock practices an acceptance speech that is just as sneering as you hope it would be. While they now may be considered mainstream, PUP hasn’t lost any of the vitriol that made their fans flock to their shows, and will again hopefully soon, to scream their purgative lyrics right back in their faces.
Dogleg – “Kawasaki Backflip”
Detriot’s Dogleg trade in the type of post hardcore bliss that will make you immediately want to experience the band in a live setting. While that wasn’t possible this year, their debut album Melee could’ve been just the thing to help you shake your quarantine blues out. Produced by the band themselves at home, the record, and outstanding single “Kawasaki Backflip”, is a blast of jagged guitars and screaming that is so cathartic it could actually make you forget, for its brief running time, that you haven’t left your own house in months.
Julien Baker – “Faith Healer”
Julien Baker released one of the most quiet heartbreaks of an album with 2017’s Turn Out The Lights and her contributions to the amazing boygenius album of 2018 have made the wait for more of her own solo work practically excruciating. Baker has eased some of this pain with the release of the first single, “Faith Healer” off of her upcoming 2021 album Little Oblivions. The track is well worth the wait and crystallizes all the things fans have fallen in love with Baker’s songwriting over the years and thrusts them onto a huge sonic palette. This is a perfect teaser for what promises to be one of the best records of next year.
Black Country, New Road – “Science Fair”
The mysterious London, UK based septet Black Country, New Road found themselves in the nexus of a bidding war when The Quietus dubbed them “The Best Band In The World”. While we haven’t been able to enjoy their now legendary, free wheeling live show, the band has been busy finishing up their debut album, For The First Time, which will drop February 5th, 2021 via Ninja Tune. The lead single “Science Fair” acts as a bit of a theme song for the band, introducing themselves to people who aren’t yet familiar but will be the moment the six minute blast of saxophone punctuated and feedback laced track reaches its unwieldy conclusion.
by Adam Fink