Out of the countless things proven during the pandemic, it's been shown that the little stuff counts the most, especially after receiving substantial time to evaluate our life's possessions and determine what we can do without. The fate of many of our external interests remained outside of anyone's control. Movie theaters closed shop and went digital, sports leagues were shuffled into controlled, isolated environments, and large gatherings were minimized to a single household. The one, rare consistency left remaining in the inescapable hellhole of 2020 was quality music. The reason why this piece has taken me six months to complete is that my answers keep constantly changing. Certain songs have grown on me, others have escaped my mind, and a few I'm not too keen about anymore. Nonetheless, I've made up my mind. I think.
I included several honorable mentions on this list because that was the only way I could reduce the number of songs down to twenty-ish. Plus I neglected to listen to certain music before the year ended and fortunately realized what I was missing out on once I gave it a chance. This only extended the reason why it took me so long to make this list in the first place. So let's just get this out of the way before I change it again.
Thundercat - "Dragonball Durag"
"Dragonball Durag" flaunts bass guitar god Thundercat at his goofiest, grooviest, and most suave. He's got a new car, a Gucci belt, a Dragonball Z durag and he's prowling the town for some affection. Like Popeye when he eats a can of spinach, Thundercat's superpower elixir is his trusty durag. With this newfound confidence, he tries to serenade every lady in sight with rich falsetto croons.
Every line on the song is memorable but the most flattering by far is the poetic Shakespearean question he poses: "babygirl how do I look in my durag?" Thundercat's odyssey ends triumphantly with a silky smooth saxophone solo. With his abundant anime references, plentiful wit, and groovy basslines this is the song he was born to make.
Fleet Foxes - "Wading in Waist-High Water"
If asked to describe their feelings toward the ocean, some may call it frightening, since the midnight blue hue of the waves often conceals the sea's darkest secrets. Though we often don't know what's hiding beneath the water, many of us choose to venture out anyway. This lingering sense of curiosity and discovery is born out of the undeniable beauty of the ocean. The pleasant crash of the waves and the harmonious tide easing into the shore attract visitors and invite comfort.
This understanding of the human fascination with majestic natural scenery is where Fleet Foxes' fourth album "Shore" excels the most. "Shore" is a masterful attempt by the Pacific Northwestern indie folk band to evoke the tranquil sound of the ocean and erupt a feeling of clarity. "Wading in Waist-High Water" opens the album like a crisp splash of water on your face and is as restoring as watching a sunrise with your soulmate. Sung by vocalist Uwade Akhere, it's a comforting and exalting reset from an otherwise tumultuous year that allows listeners to envision the bright side of the unknown.
Bad Bunny, Ñengo Flow, Jowell & Randy - "Safaera"
Much of the influx of Spanish-language music dominating radio stations and gaining millions of American fans can be rightfully traced back to Puerto Rico's reggaeton king Bad Bunny. Now a Super Bowl performer, Grammy award winner, and WWE 24/7 Championship Belt-holder for 28 days, Bad Bunny has established himself as a megastar. He dropped two can't-miss albums in 2020, the first (and more impressive) one being "YHLQMDLG," a Spanish abbreviation that translates as "I do what I want."
On "YHLQMDLG," the song that sticks out the most is the party carousel "Safaera," which is both a tribute to the genre's electric past as well as a step into the future. Joined by Puerto Rican reggaeton legends Jowell & Randy and Ñengo Flow, Bunny forms a compelling reggaeton opera with over half a dozen beat switches and lustful, high-tempo bravado and desire. DJ Orma and Tainy borrow the riff from Missy Elliot's "Get Ur Freak On" for the song's thumping centerpiece which further provides a good reminder of Timberland's impressive production repertoire. It's as vibrant as it is mystical, and if you want a real treat, read the English translation for the lyrics.
Drakeo The Ruler - "Crime Stoppers"/ "Ion Rap Beef Remix"
Over the last few years, Drakeo the Ruler had to pay for his freedom. He was put behind bars for involvement in a murder that he had no direct connection to because the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office claimed he was set to benefit from the crime being carried out. Drakeo already beat the case once, but the instant re-filing of the charges immediately sent him back behind bars. Each plea for leniency was met by increasingly worsening conditions. He was placed in solitary confinement, held under a restrictive gag order and forced to endure COVID-19 in cramped, caged quarters. Not only was his experience direct proof of how racist gang enhancement laws target Black men but also how prisons enforce physical and mental barriers between their occupants and society. After a lengthy battle with the corrupt and immoral American criminal justice system and the day after his longtime tormentor Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey was voted out of office, Drakeo finally became a free man.
The failed attempt of the DA's office to smear Drakeo's name and shuffle him through Hell did not spoil his year. In fact, he released four fantastic albums, a feat that only Detroit's Boldy James was able to match. Picking a favorite Drakeo song from these projects is an impossible task but somehow I managed. "Crime Stoppers" pairs Drakeo with fellow SoCal mainstay and frequent collaborator 03 Greedo and Houston rapper Maxo Kream. In reference to the tv show of the same name, Drakeo executes a song that only the LAPD could hate. Meanwhile, the "Ion Rap Beef" Remix has a standout guest verse from Earl Sweatshirt highlighted by the opening line of "Fuck the DA / Free the ruler." Everything is only made better by another great appearance from Greedo. Anyways, Free 03!
UMI - "Pretty Girl hi!"
On a random Saturday in October, a few friends and I planned a two-hour drive towards the spacious California desert and into the Imperial Sand Dunes. While getting ready for our anticipated photoshoot, my roommate decided to play "pretty girl hi!" on loop to achieve a free-spirited mood and channel her inner UMI. At this point, I was already a huge UMI fan and "pretty girl hi!" is one of her most euphoric and uplifting songs, but I didn't know how addictive her music was until this occurrence.
Since I'm a very plain-dressing white male, it took me no more than five minutes to get ready and wait for our departure. But for at least two consecutive hours "pretty girl hi!" blared through every crack and crevice of our apartment while my roommate steadily applied her makeup. As a song with a runtime of just under two minutes, I heard "pretty girl hi!" no less than 64 times on this day, (believe me, I did the math) and that doesn't even count the dozen or so times it was played on the car ride there. Yet every single time it came back around, I alternated from humming the tune under my breath to full-out belching "maybe wish that you could be mine." There's just something indescribably soothing about everything Umi does and this song is a perfect case of her entrancing melodies and enthusiastic voice. So shoutout to Libby for making me fully realize my love for this song.
Soccer Mommy - "Circle the Drain"
I had the privilege of witnessing Soccer Mommy open for Vampire Weekend at the CalCoast Credit Union Amphitheater in August 2019. I think I'd heard their name a few times before but never listened. Yet there's always this pattern where indie bands with the quirkiest names become instant favorites of mine. Like the Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, King Gizzard & the Wizard Lizard, and Natalie Portman's Shaved Head (now known as Brite Futures). So I guess this was destiny. Their set started soft and twinkly like a pop-up park show. Seconds later, their serene innocence was turned on its head after hearing the unexpected opening words "I don't wanna be your fucking dog." From then on I was a fan.
On their 2020 album "Color Theory," Soccer Mommy mastered the balance of miserable lyrics with cheerful production. More than every other track, "Circle the Drain" foreshadowed the hollow feeling of quarantine just two months before America's first (unsuccessful) lockdown. Sophia Allison (aka Soccer Mommy) is perfect at describing the tiring and trapped feeling of isolation even when "everything is fine." It's a testament to the creeping acknowledgment that you're falling but not knowing how to get back up. Things are hopeless and dreary but not so dark that there are no options left. There's still a noticeable tinge of brightness, as evidenced by the surfer rock riff immediately following the somber chorus. This shows that things are sunny enough to keep believing, even when it seems like your world is crumbling.
Rina Sawayama - "Dynasty"
Rina Sawayama is the world's most enigmatic popstar. With each new song on "SAWAYAMA," her gripping debut album, it becomes easier to realize what family means to her. Lineage is central to "SAWAYAMA" and much thought is put into the qualities that make a family worthwhile. Centuries (even decades) ago, the goal was creating a dynasty, to leave a heritage imprint that was inescapable. Now, it's attempting to escape one and mark your own path in the dirt.
This Evanescence-inspired intro is a fervent wake-up call and sets the tone perfectly for her exhilarating project. Sawayama's targets and alliances are made abundantly clear instantly and she sings "the pain in my vain is hereditary" as she yearns to escape this destructive cycle. The rhapsodic strength of Sawayama's voice gives all her songs a live concert atmosphere but "Dynasty" alone is worth the price of admission.
Lianne La Havas - "Sour Flower"
As the penultimate song on Lianne La Havas' self-titled third album, "Sour Flower" is the exalting conclusion to a loving but ultimately unsuccessful relationship. The strenuous love affair is recounted throughout fourteen intimate tracks, each of which is direct and intimate. The phrase where the song gets its name is taken from La Havas' Jamaican grandmother and can be defined as a problem or obstacle that must be overcome.
"Sour Flower" feels like the light at the end of a long tunnel, that looks miles away from the eye but creeps up in an instant. In a relationship sense, this is the moment when the tears are fully dried up and heartache is finally in the rearview window. La Havas sounds strong and courageous and her voice shines through, perfectly showcasing her growth and satisfaction. All in all, it's a truly gratifying finish to a phenomenal album.
Frente Cumbiero & Minyo Crusaders - "Cumbia Del Monte Fuji"
One of the year's most intriguing projects was a cross-cultural collaboration between Frente Cumbiero & Minyo Crusaders and their 4-track EP "Minyo Cumbiero (From Tokyo to Bogota)" pairs Japanese folk songs with a Columbian cumbia base. The result is a tailored and engrossing blend of genres that turns an unlikely duo into a meaningful crossover.
On this brief venture, "Cumbia Del Monte Fuji" is the most fascinating inclusion and the song's boisterous horn section immediately stands out. It's like hearing Flight of the Bumblebee but with a salsa twist. Though traditional Japanese music is often not as loud or jolting as the dance-heavy Colombian cumbia, the lyrical content matches the lively tune flawlessly. There's a surprisingly long history of Latin music prevalence in East Asia so here's to more worldwide musical sharing.
Flo Milli - "Weak"
The 20-year-old Mobile, Alabama rapper Flo Milli took rap by storm in 2020 with her charming blend of tenacity, scamming, and confidence. Her debut album "Ho, Why is You Here" is easily one of the most enjoyable projects of the year and a mark that Flo Milli is destined for a fruitful career. As a naturally gifted rapper, "Weak" is the song where everything firmly clicks for her.
Her opening verse on "Weak" is some of the finest rapping seen lately by anyone south of Tennessee. Listening to Flo Milli rap about the many undesirable men in her life feels like she's ranting on the phone with a close friend. She desires a man with abundant cash flow and the prospects are all looking "weak." For Flo Milli, hot girl summer is year-round.
Honorable Mentions: Dua Lipa - "Levitating," Hook - "I Like You Hook," Taylor Swift - "Illicit Affairs," Duke Deuce feat. Lil Yachty & Lil Thad - "Crunk Ain't Dead Mob," Mac Miller - "Hand Me Downs," Freddie Gibbs feat. Rick Ross - "Scottie Beam," Boldy James feat. Vince Staples - "Surf and Turf," Raphael Saadiq - "If It's Good," Moses Sumney - "Colouour," Yves Tumor - "Kerosene!"