by Sam Rees
Well, that was a shit year wasn’t it? Truth be told, writing about a new cultural thing every month has been tricky. The stream of art has dried up quite substantially, and out of the stuff that has been made, I’ve found it hard to engage with a lot of it. If I’m honest, several takeaways have become clear to me from this year:
- Music is possibly the best thing ever. In a time when everything is a thousand times harder, music has flowed agilely through the cracks.
- Sometimes, new isn’t always better. I’ve revisited lots of classics this year, and it all speaks with a new passion and colour.
- If you want it to be, anything can be about coronavirus.
Some things never change. And this year, as with every year, all major publications have released their end-of-year lists; the best albums of 2020. I devoted nearly an entire article earlier this year to examining the pitfalls of music writing, and everyone has fallen into line in the predictable ways-most generally lists are comprised of pop albums condescendingly overpraised in order to appear a little kooky, and records of such a niche nature that to put them on these lists can only serve to assert superiority over their readers.
These lists are tricky. Because any year they make me feel guilty about how little I am keeping up with things, after being under the misapprehension that I was for the other eleven months. This is an especially unkind thing to do to a young man in 2020, when I have no excuses. I just haven’t been keeping up, is the problem. And I’m okay with admitting that.
So, I propose something different. In fact, it’s not a proposal, because it is literally about to happen. Over the course of two parts (yes that’s TWO you lucky people!) I am going to list my top ten songs of 2020, none of which were written or released this year. Is this an utterly bizarre endeavour? Yes. Is it of a limited interest to anyone other than me? You bet. Is that going to stop me? It hasn’t done before. But I do think that this year is the year where the ghosts of music past have kept me company through the sadness, anger and inanity of this stupid fucking thing we are calling 2020. So buckle-up kiddos, here comes the first part of your other/conversations Christmas party playlist.
Here we go, in no particular order…
BILLY OCEAN, LOVE REALLY HURTS WITHOUT YOU
That’s right folks. Didn’t see that one coming did you? Better known by millennials as a staple of the Sex Education soundtrack, Billy Ocean’s 1976 soul classic has genuinely been on repeat this year. Why is this? Well, in the same way as Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’, ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’ is a song concerned with the resolutely sad and shitty parts of life, but oh my DAYS, when that chorus swells and Ocean belts out those iconic lyrics, you just wanna tap your feet and swing your hips. Mercifully, no one has had to see me do that this year. Those strings make you feel the beautiful, exquisite pain of love lost. We all need a little vulnerability these days, and Ocean makes it an utterly uplifting, unstoppably joyous experience. My other pet theory is that, as a song for high school proms and dreamy sunsets, ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’ is about a comic book kind of heartache. It’s vibrant and dramatic, and takes me away from all the banal crappiness of lockdown. Besides, ‘without you’ is the manta of the year, surely. We’re all learning what it means to live with a fundamental absence. Might as well sound catchy as hell while we’re doing it. Put it on, you know you wanna.
NINE INCH NAILS, CLOSER
Did you think there would be some semblance of consistency to this list? YOU FOOL. Some people probably find this song problematic, although the notion abroad that its chorus in some way points to bestiality (as if nobody has heard of a simile before) is kind of silly. In a similar way to the first track, ‘Closer’ is a broad-brushstroke affair, about big emotions and statements, which if nothing else make this tedious year a little more interesting. If I’m being contrary, I might argue that Trent Reznor’s industrial-glam opus to getting freaky is in fact a deeply romantic song concerned with sacrilege and devotion, and why should all the gnarly bits of amorous interactions be scrubbed away? But any day of the week I would insist that it’s insanely fun and perversely danceable. In a year that for me lacked very much sordidness or excess, sometimes the best thing you can do is throw some shapes to this evil little song. Altogether now:
BEYONCE, DON’T HURT YOURSELF
I’m not gonna waste a word count telling you what you already know, but Beyonce is of course the most important artist of her generation and 2016’s Lemonade one of the greatest albums of all time. I picked this track because it slaps in a big, big way. On the one hand, if I were to try and pick a song which bests exemplifies righteous anger, this may well be the choice. But that’s not because it’s a universal anthem-far from it, ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ is a song by black woman about her experiences, it is beautiful, terrifying and never fails to give me goosebumps. Also, the gods of cool must have been feeling generous the day they stuck Queen B in a room with Jack White. Who knew that White’s swaggering classic rock proclivities would sound so good making musical love to contemporary R and B. After the events of this summer, it found me again, and continues to insist on being played, in order to hold me to account and remind me of how much work I and all other white people still have to do.
I don’t know if it’s news to anybody but 2020 has been quite sad at times. There’s often been a lot of noise, a lot of rhetoric, a lot of attempting to articulate experiences and I have found it overwhelming. ‘Looped’ is one of those pieces of music to disappear inside. The crackling ambience of it, the melodic piano, it’s got the distinct feeling of cigarettes out of windows while it rains at two in the morning. Music has done a lot to bring me and other people together this year, but I don’t think I would want to listen to this track in company It’s for those quiet moments. It’s got a mystical power, and seems to bring the quiet with it.
PRINCE, SIGN ‘O’ THE TIMES
This is a really weird list, isn’t it? Spotify and its chaotic algorithms have a lot to answer for. There is a theory that certain newsreaders are on a bunker list should there be a nuclear apocalypse, in order that their familiar faces may provide some continuity and reassurance to a frightened population. I’m not sure how much Fiona Bruce would calm me down, but every time I have listened to Prince the last twelve months, I have felt inordinately better. His vocal take on this track is so louche, you can almost hear him shrugging his shoulders as he loses interest in what he’s saying. It’s an anthem to looking at everything around and sighing with resignation. Every time I have felt freaked out, or existentially panicked, and I have stuck ‘Sign ‘‘O’’ The Times’ on, it’s almost like that insanely cool man is speaking directly to me and telling me to chill the hell out.
Thanks for reading this far, things are gonna get weirder in Part 2 of the best songs of in 2020 not released in 2020, and that is a promise. Hope to see you on the other side x