Every year, I put out a playlist of my favorite songs from the year. I used to say this playlist was the “best” songs of that year, but I have definitely put that behind me. These aren’t the best songs, just the ones I liked best throughout the year. The ones that for one reason or another stuck with me. There are blindspots and omissions, sure –– it’s not a perfect playlist, but I really love it and I love the process each year. The playlist can be found here. I would play it straight, not on shuffle.
One thing I always think about doing but never get around to doing is putting together a smaller list of favorite songs and writing a little about those specific songs. That’s what this post is all about. I wrote it in one sitting, mostly stream of consciousness. Like the playlist it’s not perfect and it’s probably not even exactly how I’ll feel about these songs in a few months (in a few months, I would probably write about a different collection of 10 songs!), but I wanted to put some words to some thoughts. The songs are not ranked, but listed in the order they ultimately appear in the playlist.
1. Deep In Love — Bonny Light Horseman
This summer, I went camping for 10 days in Big Bend National Park in south west Texas. It was hot. Over 100 degrees every day. We were advised to take a liter of water for every hour we expected to be out on the trail, and to actually stay off the trail from 1:00pm–4:00pm because of the heat. While there, a wildfire broke out on one of the mountains and it took 3 days to put it out (though it was contained). It was the first time I had camped in a long time and I went with one of my best friends, Isaac. One of the last trails we hiked was just a small one…took about 30 minutes round trip, but we went right around sunset and it was so beautiful (the most recent pictures on my instagram are from that hike…). While we were on the trail that evening, this song was in my head the whole time and I couldn’t for the life of me remember the song title, but the chorus kept running through my head. This is a favorite because it reminds me of that hike.
2. On The Floor — Perfume Genius
This song is actually on the playlist twice…once as this studio version and it appears again because there is a GREAT remix of it. This song is just so catchy to me. I love how persistent it is. The chorus is so good. It’s so optimistic, but it’s a question song…to me, the singer is trying to convince himself that everything is going to be okay, but he’s still dancing. That’s 2020 in a song, if you ask me.
3. Visit Croatia — Alabaster DePlume
To be honest, the tracks tend to flow together for me because I usually listen to it all in one go, but I highly recommend this one — some excellent piano and saxophone bits. The album is haunting in a comforting way.
4. The Young God Speaks / Look Over Your Shoulder — Busta Rhymes (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
Kendrick is the best in the game. So glad to see him pop up here. I also just love a good Motown sample and really appreciate the way the Jackson 5 song is used here. The idea of these rappers who hit their stride in different generations, but who are both still very much in the game, each looking over their shoulders, considering their legacies. They’re not rushed, but they are moving. There is no paranoia, but there is awareness. While not the best thing either of these icons have ever done, the track is so solid and I just have such deep respect for the art at work in each of these verses.
5. Heaven’s Nail and Hammer — M. Ward
This song is best listened to late at night, driving on a highway with at least an hour of travel in front of you. That’s how I first heard it anyway. And it definitely has that vibe to it. It’s mysterious and beautiful. A lullaby for a traveler, spinning a myth about where stars come from. This has been a consistent nighttime listen for me this year.
6. Chinese Satellite — Phoebe Bridgers
I went back and forth for a while about which Phoebe Bridgers song to write about here. I decided to go with this one (came down to this, Halloween, and Graceland Too). I think this is my favorite from that album because I love the honesty. It’s so pure and real. The singer doesn’t seem to believe in God or the afterlife, but she believes in the person she’s with. She wants to believe that she can be with this person she loves forever. Even if it seems ridiculous or embarrassing, if it’s true, she’d stand on that street corner for the hope of being with her loved-one after death. The idea that her love is making her consider all possibilities, even the ones that seem impossible is just so pure, so raw and desperate in a way that I really love.
7. Lucky Sometimes — Pokey LaFarge
It’s that piano part that sticks with me. And the story. I’ve probably listened to this song over a hundred times. It’s at the heart of an incredible album called “Rock Bottom Rhapsody” and the song is a whole scene. I really appreciate the way that the words are paint a vivid picture of a life-changing encounter in a dive/diner. A love story, a promise, a perfect piano part. *chef’s kiss*
8. Tanana — DaVido (feat. Tiwa Savage)
This one is just such a good vibe, I keep going back to it. The production and groove are really immersive. A few weeks ago, I searched twitter for “best album of 2020” to see what blinds spots I might have and this album came up on a lot of peoples’ lists –– mostly lists from non-Americans. The whole album is such a great groove and there are a few standout tracks, but this is my favorite. Put this one on and try to sit still!
9. Sugar — Sufjan Stevens
I want to explore a feeling I get when I listen to “Sugar.” For me, it gives voice to a particular kind of desire and desperation I’ve had lately: It feels like waiting all day for a reply to a text. Nothing. The ticking clock sets in. It’s getting late. What are the moves? Maybe I’ve been too soft? Should I be more aggressive? An ultimatum? It’s paranoia and it’s crippling, but I think it’s human. Or at least it’s pattern I recognize in myself – longing. I often find myself sitting around, wanting companionship, wanting to be with someone. Wanting to make out with someone or hold someone, or make someone a drink, or dance slowly with someone, or put on a movie we both love. Wanting all of that so badly, but being unable to grasp it, or see it clearly. It’s pure desire. It’s based on nothing. Selfishness distilled into a text message. It’s a thousand overtures and flirty sentiments that fall short or overextend. It’s erotic but it has a fuse that burns quickly. And it’s palpable, for me, in the song. I usually don’t like the futility of feeling those things without action, but I really appreciate that this song makes me feel less alone with them.
10. Minnesota — Mick Flannery and Anaïs Mitchell
Whew. This song was released election week and it completely wrecked me. It’s gorgeous and I think it holds a lot of truth for me and for the worlds that I wish for and work toward. It starts locally, singing about Minnesota, but soon moves bigger to be about America in general. But I think the idea that “my hopes for you are my hopes for me, my dreams for you are my dreams for me” really speaks to me. When I believe in something, when I work for something, especially in community with others, or for community, I put my whole self into the work and I get wrapped into it. We become intertwined with the things we love, when we truly love them. They become part of us until they can’t be part of us anymore. I consider myself a pretty optimistic person, but as 2020 comes to a close, I know that my optimism has been damaged. It’s not easy to just trust that the right thing will ultimately happen, even if I believe Dr. King was right when he said the “moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” I’m always trying to push against naïveté in my life and relationships and experiences. But that’s not always easy for me…I’m naturally a very trusting person. This song renews my hope though, for better or worse. I cling to it. And then, when it ends, I try to get up and get some work done.