Music has a way of time stamping memories into place. Like bookmarks in the book of life, certain songs and albums will always take you back to different times, places and memories. If I think back over the past 15 odd years, I might drift into a faint memory of air guitar-ing to Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" in a sweaty elementary school gymnasium at the annual family dance. Or maybe I might wander towards highschool-angst-Will squinting at Spike Jonze's masterful music video for Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" on his tiny 3 cm iPod Nano screen. 2012's "The House that Heaven Built" (Japandroids) would bring me back to racing back to dorm on a Friday afternoon, excited for a night with my friends nowhere to go (it didn't seem matter back then).
A simple power pop tune from the band with the confusing name and 45 guitarists (okay, just 4). Catchy chorus on this one!
19. “Rot” - PUP
2020 saw the release of a B-side EP from my favs PUP. “Rot” is the leadoff track from EP and jumps right into it with a crowd sung chorus, heavy upbeat drums and thundering fuzzed out guitars.
18. “Televised Mind” - Fontaines D.C.
Deep, dark, and brooding, “Televised Mind” is the standout track from Fontaines D.C.’s (sophomore slump) album A Hero’s Death. I love the interplay of the chaotic drum pattern and the throbbing fuzzy bass line.
17. “Time for Yourself” - Scenic Route to Alaska
Edmonton favourites are back in 2020 with some excellent new songs on the album Time For Yourself. The title track stands out with its distorted bassline, heavy tom tom drums, and radio static vocals. Can’t wait to hear this one live.
16. “Black Licorice” - Peach Pit
It’s all about the unique guitar riff in this jangly indie tune from Vancouver band Peach Pit. Lead guitarist Christopher Vanderkooy uses a string bend to pitch shift each note of the riff, leading to a distinctively emotive and memorable lick.
15. “Hell” - Waxahatchee
I could have picked nearly any song from Waxahatchee’s 2020 album Saint Cloud for this list. “Hell” just seems especially fitting for 2020. A straight up country rock song with an upbeat drumbeat and a sing-along chorus.
Sharp angular guitars are front and centre in this poppy single from British punks IDLES.
13. “Concrete” - Snarls
There are so many amazing femme-led alt bands out there making 90s-nostalgic music right now. Snarls is another fantastic entrant to this scene already rich with artists such as Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, and Chastity Belt. “Concrete” is one of Snarls’ best with a melodic guitar riff and desperately sung, catchy chorus. Looking forward to more from this band.
12. “Kyoto” - Phoebe Bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers’s amazing voice AND a driving drum beat?? I’ve never been a huge Phoebe Bridgers fan as I don’t typically listen to mellow music (can you tell?), but “Kyoto” is an instant classic. Take Bridgers’s typical depressive lyrics, pair it with a cheery keyboard riff, and a thumping driving drum pattern and you have a hit (at least with me).
11.“4ÆM” - Grimes
“You’re going to get sick, you don’t know when,” whispers Grimes in this drum and bass anthem from her 2020 album, Miss Anthropocene. Released only weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic gripped North American in March, “4ÆM” was an unexpected timely released. The song is feverish in its arrangement, oscillating between a walking pace house beat and a full sprint drum and bass club banger. Grimes’ vocals add to this oscillation, moving from near rap to near operatic in the span of seconds. To me, “4ÆM” is indicative of 2020; equal parts exciting, disorientating, and distressing.
10. “Home” - Caribou
There are few producers in the world so adept at blending vintage samples with modern techniques than Caribou’s Dan Snaith. “Home” centres around a old-timey soul lyric sample paired with a boisterous 80s boom-bap drum beat. Snaith weaves his own lyrics in between the soul sample, creating a story around the meaning of home beyond the 5 seconds he’s sampled. Layer in some modern 808s bass lines, pokey strings, and you have an absolute masterpiece of electronic production.
9. “Out of My Head” - Mac Demarco
A throwaway b-side from Mac’s 2019 Album Here Comes the Cowboy. I thought the actual album was total trash, definitely Mac’s worst album to date. However, this track came on 2020's Other Here Comes The Cowboy Demos, a sloppy set of b-side tracks. “Out of My Head” was likely a warm-up studio jam but it gets back to what made Mac internationally loved in the past. Simple groves, lazily sung vocals, and plucky guitar solos. I went back to this song again and again to slow down, chill out, and generally escape from the stress of 2020.
8.“Daily Routine” - Disq
“this is my daily routine // spend my hours on computer screen.” Disq lead singer Isaac deBroux-Slone lazily belts on this crunchy punk tune. Echoing bands like Parquet Courts and Bored Décore, Disq captures the existential dread of the working person. Are we living or simply wasting our days away?
7. “Dotted Line” -Pinegrove
Evan Stephen Hall’s earnest yowl is at its best on this nostalgic folk thumper. “Dotted Line” is about that feeling when you move away from something or someone you know and love towards the unknown. While you’re scared and nervous to leave behind your past, somewhere in that pit in the bottom of your stomach is the belief that things will turn out fine wherever you’re headed. It’s a triumphant tune for the time, with the chorus “I don’t know how // but I’m thinking it’ll at work out.'
6. “Dear Stranger” - STRFKR
STRFKR released their 2020 album Future Past Life right at the start of the pandemic in North America. It immediately become my go-to refuge to escape from the panic of the outside world. “Dear Stranger” is the lead off track from the album and features one of my favourite bass lines of 2020. On this track, and on the album as well, STRFKR presents a more mature and cohesive sound compared to their five previous albums. Joshua Hodges’s vocals are far clearer, and the overall production is warmer with lots of traditional instrumentation (acoustic guitars, live drums, piano). This is a departure from the overly synthesized STRFKR of the past. What remains unchanged is Hodges keen ear for memorable melodies - shown here beautifully.
5. “Acrid” -The Beths
Long time readers know I am sucker for a sing-a-long chorus, and The Beths deliver on that with “Acrid.” There may be bands out there doing more interesting, experimental, and original things, but no one can top The Beths when it comes to verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus rock anthems. “It’s youuuuuuu, you I wanna run intooooooo.” Heartfelt power pop perfection.
4.“Idaho”- Slow Pulp
Soaring, expansive shoe gaze straight from the 90s. The kind of tune that absorbs you in a shimmering warm embrace of sound. Lead singer Emily Massey is the captain of this wall of sound, with her incredible vocal range on full display here. Fans of showgaze legends Slowdive should certainly pay attention here.
3. “circle the drain” - Soccer Mommy
Sounding like a lost hit on a dusty 90s cassette, Soccer Mommy’s “circle the drain” feels oddly comfortable. ”Warm” sounding production ties together strummed acoustic guitar, marching drums and a noodle-y electric guitar riff. Principally, the song is about the highs and lows of depression; you’ll go round and round trying to beat it, only to eventually be sucked down like the water in your kitchen sink. “I’ve been falling falling apart these days,” sighs Sophie Allison in the pre-chorus, somehow both lamenting her reality and accepting it for what it is in the same line. I think we’ve all been at that place sometime this year.
2. “Every Tradition”- Bully
Likely the best song from my favourite album of the year, “Every Tradition” is grunge rock at its finest. A screaming lead guitar lick immediately grabs your ear above crunchy rhythm guitar and cymbal heavy drums. Singer songwriter Alicia Bognanno’s fiercely delivered lyrics dive into societal expectations around womanhood, adulthood, and motherhood. “It’s like pressure to have a baby when I don’t want one in my body.” It’s the perfect modern adaption of the classic 90s PNW grunge sound.
1. “The Steps” - HAIM
A fist-pumping, heart-wrenching belter of a tune reflecting back on a relationship gone south. “The Steps” features possibly 2020’s most memorable riff - a driving arpeggio played with a distinctive hollow, twangy tone echoing New Order’s “Age of Consent.” This rhythmic riff is the backbone of the song, with cacophonous drumming and screaming lead guitar layering overtop in simple perfection. Roll down all the windows and belt this one at the sun!