Friends, it’s finally done: A curated list of the best songs of our annus horribilis, agonizingly chosen from a list of more than 100. Bad years for humans are good years for art, and this has been a bumper year for new music. So settle in, turn it up, and forget the shitshow for 1 hour 8 minutes. We got you.
Sheer Mag: Expect the Bayonet
Let’s kick it off with a ball-tearer: Expect the Bayonet is a feminist anthem from a 1970s-style punk-rock outfit out of Philly called Sheer Mag. In it, shrill, distorted vocals about an armed uprising for women’s suffrage are laid over a driving riff on an antique electric guitar. The result is an understated gem of a rock ballad that is outside of time.
Burning Hearts: Work of Art
Fun fact: In earlier stages of this mixtape, I had not one but two songs about the topography of organs (the other being Jens Lekman’s Evening Prayer, in which his protagonist makes a 3D printed model of his tumor and takes it to a bar, as you do.) It’s the year for exploring the junction of medical imaging and pop music, it seems.
Anyway, Finland’s Burning Hearts uses the heart as a metaphor, and are certainly not the first pop band to ever do so, but they do it in a weirdly specific way, to demonstrate the power of music to move people. Work of Art is a beautiful song, and a sentiment that really speaks to me this year.
Benjamin Booker: Witness
It’s about time we had a secular gospel classic. This is the title track from a record that wanders from blues and soul through folk to psychedelia (!) and features strong messages about entrenched racism in America.
Referencing police brutality and racial profiling, Witness doesn’t let us buy a Black Lives Matter bumper sticker and call it good. A failure to act in the face of injustice is also an injustice. Booker demands that we all ask ourselves: Am I gonna be a witness?
Aimee Mann: Goose Snow Cone
Opening her new record Mental Illness, which is a sad but thoughtful look at chronic depression, folk stalwart Aimee Mann gives us a song filled with longing. It’s longing for home, for wellness and for a friend’s cat named Goose, whose Instagram photo looked to a homesick, depressed Mann, like a funny snow cone; thus the name.
As if the quiet despair of Goose Snow Cone was not enough by itself, Mann paired it with a music video about the anguish of caring for a sick pet. Now there are onions being cut in my house. Fark, Aimee. She does not let up, and that’s one of the reasons we love her.
Penguin Cafe: Cantorum
An instrumental track on our annual best-of? It’s not unprecedented but it sure is rare. Such is the strength of this rainstorm of an arrangement by Penguin Cafe. The continuation of the acclaimed (but impenetrable) Penguin Cafe Orchestra by the founder’s son, this new band brings a pop sensibility to this moody chamber music. Headphones are required.
The Mountain Goats: Rain in Soho
Oh, how good it is to have a new release by The Mountain Goats! And this year’s Goths is both a return to form and arguably their darkest record yet. So much the better.
Rain in Soho tells the story of a famous London goth club, The Batcave, which embraced music and fans as diverse as synthpop, post-industrial and deathrock. For those of us who came of age on the fringes of subcultures, the goth clubs of our towns were the only places that truly accepted us for who and what we were. This tune speaks to that special role these most broad of churches played in our upbringing, and the hole that is left when they are gone.
This is not the official clip – they haven’t made one yet – but this fan video comes close to how this song might be played at a club like The Batcave: At volume, with a sheet strung over one wall and a projector showing clips from creepy old movies. Perfect.
Sundays & Cybele: Butterfly’s Dream
You get just 25 seconds of build up to brace yourself for this nine-minute onslaught of Japanese psychadelica. A swaying, swoony baseline is barely able to ground the noodling of a screaming guitar that goes just far enough off script to make you wonder if it will all fall apart … before it snaps back to a surprisingly simple sea shanty of a chorus.
Apparently, Butterfly’s Dream was inspired by the writings of Zhang Zhou, and the idea that you cannot prove yourself – you are yourself. So in that vein, this song just is. Turn it up.
Troldhaugen: It’s Morphine Time
Right off the bat: Yes, this band is a joke. But I defy you not to bop your head along to this folk-metal instant classic.
Though hailing from a regional city in Australia, Troldhaugen is named after the homestead of Romantic-era Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who was known for bouncy, nationalistic works that incorporated the folk songs of his country.
Like Grieg before them, Troldhaugen incorporate folk elements and a big swig of pure pop sensibility to the tongue-in-cheek It’s Morphine Time. The whole record Idio+syncrasies is worth a listen, with tunes including the gene-editing love song CRISPr Me Baby One More Time, and BMX Terminator, which – I kid you not – is a metal polka.
Vagabon: The Embers
From pure artistry to pure emotion.
Vagabon somehow pairs metaphor and pure pedestrian banality in this swaying indie-rock suckerpunch. Her voice wavering with anger, she screams:
I’m just a small fish
And you’re a shark that hates everything
In the hands of a less-convincing vocalist, these lyrics would be twee, even embarrassingly naive, but Vagabon pulls it off with a strength and conviction that makes me ponder: Aren’t sharks also fish?
Camp Cope: The Opener
Living the adage that the personal is political, Melbourne’s Camp Cope takes an ex-boyfriend to task over his exploitation of her talent and emotions in this slow-burning rage fit. Referencing both the lesser status of the opening band at a show and the act of accepting sex as a woman, The Opener unfolds into a righteous tirade about paternalism in the music industry, all underpinned by the rising pitch of a classic indie bassline.
Kevin Morby: 1234
This has been a year for reflection. Often, we’ve looked back on happier or simpler times, and tried to remember the circumstances and feelings that formed our values. But you can never go backwards.
Kevin Morby takes less than two minutes to make quick work of your precious memories in this classic punk allusion, 1234. Simple, honest, brutal.
Beth Ditto: Fire
There’s a darkness to the pop music this year, and it’s infected even the indie-pop princess Beth Ditto. A dirty riff underpins this demand letter to a prospective lover, with Ditto’s healthy pipes yelling “fire,” a rare signal of submission from the famously feminist singer. Yes, you will have her. But on her terms.
An autobiographical track with the simplest of backing tracks framing Logic’s uniquely lyrical approach, Everybody speaks to the experience of being between white and black cultures, being part of each without belonging to either. Reminiscent of P.A.R.I.S. and covering similar themes with the same frankness, Everybody calls on all Americans to consider their shared humanity.
Frank Turner: The Sand in the Gears
A song for our American moment, this is more than a call to action – it’s a call to vigilance.
The Blow: Get Up
A lesson in geology and gentrification wrapped in an electropop pill. A total delight.
Perfume Genius: Slip Away
From the outset, the juxtaposition of earthly, organic percussion and Perfume Genius’ overworked vocals set up a tension that never lets up in this jangly art-pop love song. Unrelenting waves of fierce closeness (and, I think, prepared piano) disorient and sweep you away.
He never says it will all work out, or that it’s not dangerous to give your heart fully and desperately. Like the great new romantics before him, he just says: “It’s you and me against the world.”
And in the end, isn’t that all there is?
St. Vincent: New York
Change comes to the best of us, and St. Vincent is perhaps the best of us. A bittersweet stand-out from her galling new record, MASSEDUCTION, this is a dirge that pounds the gum-streaked pavement in wobbly heels through the verses and soars at skyline-level in the chorus.
New York mourns the loss of a friend, a way of life; even a sense of innocence. Yet, despite its harrowing and self-effacing confessions, it remains defiant: I’d do it all again. And you can’t help but believe her.