Thursday, December 3, 2020

Top 25 Songs of 2020

This year more than any year before it, music was an integral component of my happiness. Having spent most of this year working alone in my own home, I maintained an almost constant need for music to warm the silence.

While I often clung to old favorites – Stevie Nicks, Dolly Parton, and Shania Twain – like musical comfort food, many artists began to produce resonant new material soon after the initial shock of a global pandemic had worn away.

Some songs released this year faced an uncomfortable reality alongside us; Others dipped us into not an escapist fantasy, but rather a reminder of mere normality. These are the track that meant the most to me – for both of those reasons and more – this year.


Yes, sometimes Lana Del Rey makes it so difficult to be a fan. Between the “question for the culture” micro-aggressions debacle and the beaded mask that provided quite literally no protection at a mass gathering in a Barnes & Noble, she’s had a bumpy year. But damn it, even when she makes her single cover with iPhone, the music somehow still holds its quality.


Millennials have reached the scary point in our lives when our favorite childhood pop culture cornerstones have become trendy reference pages for new artists. In an unexpected shift, English quartet Pale Waves enters this chat: The band’s “Change” guns for post-grunge with a pop lick.


Frankly, it feels like at least four years ago since Grimes released Miss Anthropocene – and it feels even stranger to remember that Grimes released a traditionally entrancing song like “Delete Forever.” Dragged across the bare guitar strum, her voice is used as a sample loop – the only true sign that it’s a Grimes track – on a song that stands in the aftermath of drug-fueled destruction.


It’s a bittersweet time to think about the club and concert venues: They’re places we shouldn’t be for our own protection, even if some seem to believe they’re immune to airborne viruses. Kylie Minogue channels our desire for normality here, drilling messages of unity into a dance record that was largely pieced together mid-pandemic in a home studio. “We’re a million miles apart in a thousand ways,” she sings on “Say Something,” a spectacularly dynamic cut that builds upon a deep, gurgling synth run to spark magic.


Get the hell out of Billie Eilish’s way. After working her way into the American mainstream and sweeping the top four awards of the night at this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony, Eilish makes it clear she won’t be stopping there – and she doesn’t want any clout chasers riding the waves. “Therefore I Am” is a badass stomper, with her disinterested vocal approach brining a cool, subtle edge.


They may have started as teen pop-rockers, but Aly & AJ are clearly meant to be a synthpop duo. “Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor” is a tour de force in dance music: A crowded chant stomps over a synth twinkle. “We don’t stop until mascara’s on the dance floor. We say, ‘No!’ Joan of Arc is on the dance floor,” they shout. And when this song plays, we’ll also be on the dance floor when it’s safe to do so.


“Circle the Drain,” the best moment from Soccer Mommy’s sophomore major label release, hypnotizes so strongly with its circling melody and tight percussion that it’s easy to disassociate it from its imagery of Sophie Allison’s determination swirling down that drain.

18. "3AM" • HALSEY

Manic is a fine record, but nothing is worth a revisit quite like “3am.” This little ball of horny desperation owns an aggressive chaos that would make Ashlee Simpson and Avril Lavigne envious in their heydays. As the song carries itself with the strength of a freight train, the energy of her mad scrolling through a list of potential suitors is nearly palpable: “Would you please pick up the fucking phone?” she yells – surely with us all in unison.


While most of Charli XCX’s newest record captures feelings from quarantine with immediacy, “Claws” is flat-out infectious regardless of context. Her gulped repetition concretes that, well, she likes everything about her live-in turned lock-down boyfriend. And the simple melody through which that fact is conveyed will be lodged in your head for hours after one listen.


An exemplary show of arms in pop songwriting, “Die 4 Ur Love” builds and bursts in all the right places. While its instrumentation conveys an apocalypse looming in the near distance, Tei Shi carries her incredible melody with an undying urgency: “If I can’t have you, what’s the point of all this? I’m broken in two, apocalypse,” she sings. (Yeah, sure, it may seem even better this year in particular, given apocalyptic imagery can feel so on-the-nose recently...)


A record like Petals for Armor depends on a gradual build between its tracks for part of its synergistic impact, so it’s hard to pluck a true highlight from the crowd. “Over Yet,” however, is a warm, breezy track, easy to spin detached from its counterparts and packed with enough energy to inspire an at-home workout video – not an attribute that would have been expected of a Hayley Williams song a decade ago, but it’s a whole new world out here.


The Chicks’ first single in over a decade makes it clear who the original gaslighter was – "Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat, and boy, that’s exactly why you ain’t coming home," Maines stings on their comeback record's strongest track – but within the signature harmonies of the chorus, a certain commander-in-chief certainly comes to mind. It feels incredibly fitting for a band whose career is defined by a political statement – and incredibly easy to listen to the track on repeat.


It should be criminal that The 1975 placed one of the best songs in their catalog on their worst album by far. Notes on a Conditional Form drags to an unbearable dirge almost immediately, making it even easier for “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” to assert itself as the only clear highlight. Magnified in reverb on the pornographic pop-rock fever dream, Healy shouts about sex appeal over the band’s brightest groove and overshadows the other tracks’ indifference.


Of course a Carly Rae Jepsen B-side would make the top 20 cut in a ranking of its respective year’s best songs. “Summer Love” all but confirms that Jepsen heard that fantastic mash-up of Tame Impala and "I Really Like You." The sizzle of Jepsen’s actual psychedelic track is just as fulfilling as her voice meets tinny keys and a sick bass riff.


After a drip-feed of uncharacteristic singles with a rotating cast of Generation Z rappers, Ellie Goulding released an unexpected crowning jewel to her catalog. Contrasting deep, gurgling bass with a skyrocketing chorus that interpolates Dua Lipa’s “Be the One,” Goulding’s “Power” speaks to the hollow nature of dating in the era of technology and digital attention-seeking.


“Rain on Me” is an absolute triumph of a warehouse rave banger. I try to refrain from referring to things as “fierce,” an overused word to describe things any little movement a woman makes. Gaga’s declaration of “Rain on me,” though, is nothing if not fierce: It triggers a robotic spasm so infectious that it’s almost insulting that the song comes to a close at just the three-minute mark.


“XS” is an incredibly fresh take on turn-of-the-millennium rhythm and blues with sarcastic maximalist lyrics: “Gimme just a little bit more, little bit of excess. Oh me, oh my!” she sings in a disjointed, unpredictable melody. As Rina Sawayama refuses to choose between goth rock and hyped up pop music, the song is both aggressive and disruptive – but more importantly, it’s downright exhilarating.


Last year, MUNA declared that they would save the world with a fantastic record. Little did they know how badly we would all need rescued in 2020. Though a collaboration with The Knocks, “Bodies” fits the MUNA palette – it’s saturated and reflective, but it still pops off. Lead vocalist Katie Gavin rolls through her syllables in signature delivery as she longs for a house party – or at this rate, any sign of normality.


Steady trap-indebted beats chop up a hazy low-fi synth blanket, turning an unhealthy emotional attachment into a magnetic track on “Heat Waves.” “Sometimes all I think about is you, late nights in the middle of June,” Dave Bayley sings, stretching the last words of his stanzas thin and warbled. While it’s really a lonely thought, the song is so damn groovy that it’s sometimes easier to get swept away in the sound than to sit back and think about Bayley’s underlying feelings. Maybe that’s what makes it a brilliant song.


Neon synthesizers and urgent bass light up "Physical," an espresso shot to the libido: "C’mon, let’s get physical!" Dua Lipa roars with such command that Olivia Newton-John barely whimpered the phrase in comparison. This one was the ultimate banger of Future Nostalgia that was buried between the success of “Don’t Start Now” and “Break My Heart” in America, but it slaps much harder than the latter. Keep on dancing – when listening to this one, you really don’t have a choice.


The new old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now, because the new new Taylor Swift has just arrived. “Cardigan” – and the rest of Folklore, for that matter – features some of Taylor Swift’s most elegant songwriting and delicate vocal delivery in years. Her craft lends itself nicely to an acoustic folk aesthetic, though “Cardigan” throws in subtle glimmers and a sharp drumbeat for good measure. Subtle harmonies and devastating lyrics of a young affair make the record one of Swift’s essential additions to her discography.


“Evil is a relay sport where the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch,” Fiona Apple chants over the deep, tribal drumbeat of “Relay.” She wrote the phrase at age 15 and shelved it until this year, when she tied it into a spiraling rage over idealism: “I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure.” Its verse outbursts are the obligatory explosion of the emotion that is subdued in the primary chant, which wraps itself around the brain and sticks with the listener for hours afterwards.


While every lead single from a Miley Cyrus record somehow feels like the most essential addition to her discography, “Midnight Sky” feels like a monumental achievement The song is everything a Miley Cyrus song should be: Rebellious, sticky as hell, and soaring with the spirit of ‘80s rock legends. Interpolating “Edge of Seventeen,” it charges like a glam rock freight train as she unleashes a rebel yell: “See my lips on her mouth. Everybody’s talking now, baby – ooh, you know it’s true.”


When the fairytale overture on Jessie Ware’s “Spotlight” stalls out, a saturated bass line and hand claps emerge from the shadows to support vocal harmonies that are swollen with sensuality. The five-and-a-half minute epic welcomes listeners into What’s Your Pleasure?, Ware’s sweaty, throbbing nightclub record. And while the rest of the record is just as infectious, there’s something particularly intriguing about this cut – perhaps its in vocal delivery or the solid chord progression, or maybe it’s that thick bass line – that almost always demands a double-listen before carrying onto the rest of the tracks.


To select the one “best” song from a record as incredible as Women In Music Pt. III feels like a disservice to the record. “The Steps” seems like the first obvious answer, but maybe something like “Gasoline” is just the perfect slow burn for the spot. No, no – “Up from a Dream” might be it. Ultimately, I landed on “Don’t Wanna,” perhaps a safe pick from the record for some. But with repeated listens, the track becomes only more fulfilling; the track gradually adds elements atop the woozy guitar line until the song hits a cracking point midway. From there, the Haim women’s persistence in love is matched with an unstoppable force of instrumentation.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Review: Plastic Hearts • Miley Cyrus

As her generation’s chief provocateur, Miley Cyrus gets a thrill from shifting into new territories without much warning. “Everything changes me forever. And I’ll never be who I was yesterday. [...] I do evolve very quickly, because I’m very absorbent, like I just take everything in,” she told Zane Lowe recently. Each of her musical phases is undertaken with such intensity that her most recent presentation always seems like the definitive version of herself – the precedent of which she will never supersede. While Hannah Montana has enjoyed a resurgence as meme fodder and Cyrus herself has deemed the imagery of “Wrecking Ball” already worthy of homage, nothing feels quite as essential as today’s Miley Cyrus. Her hair chopped into a sloppy mullet and her lips painted deep red, she revitalizes the glam rock lifestyle – leveraging the scandal and defiance that she has otherwise presented in appropriated street culture and drug-infused chaos.

“Midnight Sky,” a new pinnacle in Cyrus’ career, was the harbinger to Plastic Hearts, her rock-indebted seventh record. Inspired by and later remixed with Stevie Nicks, the single delivers the best possible combination of elements in a Miley Cyrus song: Thrashing bass meets metallic synths, demanding the full weight of her voice to compete with the energy. With inspiration, co-signature, and collaboration from rock music’s legacy names, the rest of Plastic Hearts follows a similar trajectory with contemporary flair: Rock titans Joan Jett and Billy Idol appear on uncanny replicas of their own areas in rock music, while disco revivalist Dua Lipa appears opposite of Cyrus on “Prisoner,” a slamming rocker made for the dance floor. As integral sources of public demand for a Miley Cyrus rock album, live covers of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and the Cranberries’ “Zombie” are included as bonus tracks in near-studio perfection, spare perhaps some slurred diction in the former.

Much of it originating from the remnants of a scrapped extended play trilogy, Plastic Hearts paints the recent past with harsh, heavy strokes: “I brought you down to your knees, ‘cause they say misery loves company. It’s not your fault I ruin everything, and it’s not your fault I can’t be what you need,” she sings on the gripping rock ballad “Angels Like You.” Cyrus oscillates from reflection, when the record shies away from hard rock and into a variety of gritty mid-tempo cuts, to deflection, when rock ‘n roll takes its grip in many forms. Some cuts lean into traditional appeal – like the shouty title track or the Joan Jett feature "Bad Karma," which finds its rhythm from a thick kick drum and chopped moans – while others interpret the genre with a progressive mindset. "Gimme What I Want," for example, echoes her past life as a synthpop artist through the power of electric bass and well planned, digitized harmonies.

Plastic Hearts has offered reason for many to revisit Bangerz, a polarizing album that funneled heartbreak and self-sabotage through a hip-hop lens, and reference it as a contrast point to this effort. While both records equally embrace and regret recklessness, there is perhaps only one other through line drawn between them: Somehow still villainized for leaving the children's entertainment sphere over a decade ago, she continues to battle scrutiny. ("I wonder what would happen if I die. [...] Maybe that day you won't hate me," she proposes on "Hate Me." Ouch.) It's a war she and her counterparts likely will endure for the remainder of their careers, but Plastic Hearts can certainly be counted as a battle won. Not a single moment of the record underutilizes her voice, her presence, or her power: Representing the musical space within which she most comfortably resides, it is the record Miley Cyrus was destined to produce. That is, until the next one proves us wrong once again.

Plastic Hearts is available now via RCA Records.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Review: Disco • Kylie Minogue

From the average American’s perspective, the longevity of Kylie Minogue's career might seem perplexing. Though she has released records on a regular rotation since 1987 and has performed modestly in the United Kingdom and Australia throughout her career, Minogue has hoisted only five songs into the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. (America, we need to do a bit better in that department.) What is more unbelievable, however, is that it took this long for her to brand a record with the upfront name Disco. With a pinched, forever young voice and no less than a dozen thumping club records to her name, Minogue is maybe the most loyal to the dance floor compared to any post-Eurodance contemporaries – so if anybody deserves to claim stake to the genre via album title, it’s her.

It’s a bittersweet time to think about the club and concert venues: They’re places we shouldn’t be for our own protection, even if some seem to believe they’re immune to airborne viruses. Minogue channels our desire for normality here, drilling messages of unity into a dance record that was largely pieced together mid-pandemic in a home studio. “We’re a million miles apart in a thousand ways,” she opens on “Say Something,” a spectacularly dynamic cut that builds upon a deep, gurgling synth run to spark magic. (Coincidentally, the opening song, "Magic," has a similar sparkle.) And of course, the art of dance is both a self-referential lyrical pillar and a mandated response to the music here: “You and me, let’s dance ‘til morning and wake up feeling no regrets,” she tells her “Dance Floor Darling,” a definite highlight even despite its criminally abridged chorus.

In true Kylie Minogue fashion, Disco sterilizes earnest influences – this time around, high-energy disco music of the 1970s and 1980s – with a modern skew. While “Supernova” and “Real Groove” both rivet her voice right into turbo-charged electronics, they’re not without some bass licks, string runs, and yes, even cowbells. “I Love It,” meanwhile, is precisely the sugar-spiked chintz we’ve come to expect from Minogue. For the better part of a quarter-century, she has been a reliable source of surface-level, turbo-charged dance records that borrow from a rotating door of authentic musical landmarks – but not in at least a decade has she seemed this focused to a new muse. Although Disco rarely scrapes the emotional depth and raw funk of genuine disco, there's something to be said about its sharp hooks and consistently fantastic presentation.

Disco is available now under BMG Rights Management.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall