The Best Things We Heard In 2020
5:43 PM EST on December 28, 2020
This is what the Defector staff enjoyed listening to in 2020.
It's hard to pin down Kvelertak, a six-piece from Stavanger, Norway. That place is best known on the music scene for two things: black metal–inspired church burnings, and black metal that sounds like it was meant to inspire church burnings. Kvelertak are emphatically not that. But what are they? Hardcore? Death 'n' roll? It's not clear, even by their fourth album, Splid, whether they're rock or metal, nor whether they're proudly uncommercial or moving toward the sort of sound you might encounter in a Madden game. It's hard to describe to people what they sound like, because they don't sound like much else at all, so when I'm trying to recommend them, I keep it simple: Their music makes you feel good.
And who couldn't use that these days? Who couldn't use 58 minutes of balls-to-the-wall guitar riffs—by three guitarists!—that'll put you in the mood more to dance than to destroy? What Kvelertak have done here is create a major-key mood that doesn't require you to know what they're singing about to be willing to fight a war for it, which is good, because you won't. Though this album features the band's first two English songs, the rest is Norwegian-but-familiar-enough death growls/punk whines, and the most memorable English words arrive just before a particularly noodly solo: "Air guitar, come on."
There's something here for just about everyone, from soaring sing-along choruses on "Bråtebrann" to guest vocals from Mastodon's Troy Sanders on the straightforward rocker "Crack of Doom." But for my money, Splid's transcendent moment comes in the already fast—Kvelertak are allergic to midtempo—"Fanden ta Dette Hull!" when, about midway through, the entire thing shifts into overdrive, as if the tabs contain the direction "play this part a million fucking miles per hour." It's not merely a technical showcase—it's still a groove, but now a delightfully aggressive one. So what is Kvelertak? It's the soundtrack to the best house party you weren't allowed to go to this year. - Barry Petchesky
Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
One of the most annoying ways my clinical depression manifests itself is with music. Usually, I am adventurous; I like to find new bands and I like to open up my Spotify Discover Weekly and find something new to love. That's the healthy me, the version of myself I like being. That girl is more fun. She has energy to draw and paint. She reads voraciously. In a normal year, she's at the bar too late. She smokes one cigarette and gets a stranger to tell her a secret.
I like the version of myself in depressive episodes less. To survive, I become a scraped-out version of myself: quieter, less happy, less productive, short-tempered. This has a lot of consequences on how I live day-to-day. My lack of interest in almost everything ruins meals and good moments and habits the healthy me likes. I do my job, but I don't feel good about my work. I don't feel good about myself.
But one infuriating, consistent quirk of my depressive episodes is that I can no longer seek out novelty even when my brain actively needs it. This is most obvious in my consumption of music, a thing I usually love. In the depths of an episode, I reach for the same albums, like children's floaties that I can shove my arms through and so make treading water a little bit easier. It's an exclusive list.
In a moment of health earlier this fall, I realized via years of therapy that usually these pieces of music are infused in some way with the version of myself I like better, the healthy version. Until this year all of that music was music I had learned to love during times of health and joy. By consuming them on repeat, it is almost like I am reminding myself that this state is not who I am, that depression is temporary. These episodes always end, we just don't know when.
I liked Phoebe Bridgers's Stranger in the Alps and her work with boygenius, so it wasn't much of a surprise that I liked Punisher when it came out in June. I was surprised, though, to find myself playing it on repeat while I did blogs and emails at my desk these past few weeks as a depressive episode waxed and waned. It's the first album I've ever added to my collection of depressive repeat albums unaccompanied by any outside associations. I haven't sung these songs at karaoke, or in the car with a best friend, or danced to them in an overcrowded bar. I haven't seen Bridgers perform them.
In the song "Chinese Satellite," Bridgers sings:
Drowning out the morning birds/with the same three songs over and over/I wish I wrote it, but I didn't so I learn the words/Hum along until the feeling's gone forever.
It feels too direct to be a fair reference, but that's what I've been doing with this album the past few weeks. I do wish that I'd been the one who wrote "I look at the sky and feel nothing," as she sings in the chorus. The healthy me loves the sky, is obsessed with it, thinks about it all the time. One of the surest episode tests for me is to stand on the bridge by my house and look out across the tops of the trees at the big bowl of sky, so blue and so bright, and see what I can feel. When it's nothing, I know where I am.
My depression is manageable at this point in my life. I've been to years of therapy. I take pills every morning. I am “no longer a danger to herself or others,” as Bridgers sings on “Graceland Too.” Ever since I found a medication that worked for me in 2016 my episodes have been shallower and shorter. I could drown in them, but it feels far less likely. Still, they’re not easy. They’ll never be easy. This episode hasn’t been long, but it’s been long enough. They’re always just long enough for you to wake up one morning and wonder if you’re stuck here, if this will never end, if you’ll be depressed forever. And even though you know that isn’t true, knowing isn’t the same as believing. Belief doesn’t care about knowledge.
One of the biggest struggles of mental illness is the knowledge that even when you do everything right—when you exercise and take your silly pills and implement all the knowledge your therapist gave you, and write fiction you’re proud of—the episodes will still come. There will still be days and weeks and months where you look at the sky and feel nothing.
I’ve been listening to Punisher almost nonstop for a couple of weeks now: at my desk, when I walk my dog, when I do the dishes, when I lie on the ground, when I stand on the bridge to see if I can feel yet. I’m not a music critic, but I love this album. The more I listen to it, the more depth I find in it. The doubled vocals and winding melodies make every song feel like a full space, building out a room for you to sit in, if only just for a moment. The lyrics feel like they were written just for me but—because other people like these songs too and I have absolutely no connection to Bridgers—I have to assume they are universal.
But personally, Punisher matters to me because it’s the first time that an album my subconscious has decided might be able to save me is one that wasn’t previously made special for me by a positive real-life experience. It’s special because something in the frequency or pacing or atmosphere of this album helps me feel like the other version of myself still exists somewhere within me, that she’s not just some fantasy I’ve created in my sickness. That she’ll come back one day.
I was driving my car the long way home from getting a haircut a week ago: windows down, heater on, shifting easily into third as I came around a bend. I turned the corner onto the bridge just as the last song on the album, “I Know the End,” transforms around the three-minute mark from something gentle and quiet into something with the drumbeat of a pulse and momentum that feels like it will grow until it pops. The rising beat and Bridgers's voice were building as I saw, over the side of the bridge, that big, endless sky. At the top of my throat I felt a sob sitting, waiting for permission to escape.
When I opened my mouth, though, it didn’t come out. It just sat there. I couldn’t give it permission because I’m not fully back yet. It’s not over yet. But Phoebe Bridgers is right: The end is near. - Kelsey McKinney
ThePrimeThanatos YouTube Synthwave Stream
Even before 2020, I spent a lot of time listening to background music while I worked. Previously more of it was in coffee shops—but as an old(?) man who doesn’t really go to concerts anymore, my music listening in 2020 was not much different than the previous year.
I checked to see what I’d listened to the most in 2020, and it was this: A “Synthwave - Retrowave - Retro Electro Livestream” hosted on YouTube by an account named ThePrimeThanatos.
I don’t remember how I first got into synthwave, but it has become the soundtrack to my workday. Synthwave is a genre (or possibly a “microgenre”) of electronic music that’s characterized by electronic drums, gated reverb, and electronic synth. It sounds like the soundtrack for an imagined horror or action film from the 1980s. This is not accidental, as synthwave is often accompanied by visuals that attempt to create a sense of nostalgia for the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting the art, movies, and video games of the time. (I will note here that 1990s nostalgia is more often associated with a similar genre called vaporwave. All of this is also related to genres called chillwave, retro wave, future synth, or Out Run. I bet it can be broken down further, but I will not be doing that in this parenthetical.)
According to this YouTube video with fewer than 500 views that I watched, synthwave grew out of French house music producers and was heavily influenced by the neon-and-Miami Vice nostalgia in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. You might also know it from the film Drive and its soundtrack composed by Cliff Martinez, or from the TV show Stranger Things and its soundtrack, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, or maybe the video game Hotline Miami, which also features a synthwave soundtrack.
I like synthwave because it’s music, frequently lyricless, that can fade into the background while I try to figure out how to get photos of my cat onto Defector. But there’s something about the vibe of the music really does it for me. When I flip on this synthwave stream—or one of the other seemingly hundreds of synth streams this account ThePrimeThanatos has put up—I feel like I’m transported back to a mall clad in neon and wood paneling. (Thanatos’s synthwave stream uses an image of Jonathan Ingram, a character from Hideo Kojima’s 1994 Lethal Weapon-in-space video game Policenauts.)
I decided to try to find out some answers. I contacted Devon E. Levins, the host of WFMU’s movie music show Morricone Island. After spending a day working while listening to his Hellraiser soundtrack episode, we talked on the phone. Levins told me the genre’s emergence in the 2010s is partly driven by several modern works, like Stranger Things, that draw inspiration from the music and ambiance in 1980s films like those directed and scored by John Carpenter. He also turned me on to a chiptune artist named Disasterpeace, who did the soundtrack to the film It Follows. Did he have the answer as to why I care so much about a music genre that evokes what people in the 1980s thought the future would look like?
He said the 1980s films and other art synthwave artists draw inspiration from always had a kind of futuristic bent to them. “I guess you’re always yearning, hoping that the future’s going to be better that you sort of draw on these things instead of what’s going on now,” Levins said. He also said that, well, it’s just part of a cycle: “I remember going to '80s parties in the late '90s and we just thought we were the cleverest people,” he said.
Soon there will be a new genre, drawing on a different inspiration from the past, and maybe that’ll become my background music as well. But for now I’m going to keep listening to this stream, and occasionally remembering to write down the artists who do the songs I like. - Dan McQuade
100 Gecs, 1000 Gecs And The Tree Of Clues
To be a fan of 100 Gecs is to be constantly apologizing whenever you talk about them. The Midwestern duo of Laura Les and Dylan Brady make electronic music that is loud and abrasive and, for many people, just plain annoying. (Once I blasted them while in the shower and emerged to find that my apartment’s cat had puked in three different places.) In their work, Les and Brady seemingly gather up every musical influence they’ve ever absorbed over years and years of living online and spit them out all at once; the result is like one of those giant novelty sandwiches that gets you your picture on the restaurant wall if you can endure it. It’s Soulja Boy layered on top of Skrillex layered on top of blink-182 layered on top of Kylie Minogue and it sounds terrible until you’re prepared enough to listen to it a second, third, fourth time. Then it becomes the kind of music that makes you feel immortal. - Lauren Theisen
Hayley Williams, Petals For Armor
Paramore has been my favorite band pretty much my entire adult life, so it wasn’t a surprise that my most-anticipated album of 2020 was Hayley Williams’s solo debut, Petals For Armor. It didn’t hurt that she announced that boygenius—the trio of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers that has ruled my life for the last few years—would feature on a track (the vibe-y “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris”). I came into the album cycle knowing I would love it. I just didn’t think I would love it this much.
The release schedule helped build the hype: Williams released the album in three parts: first came Petals For Armor I, which featured the first five tracks on the album, then Petals For Armor II, which featured songs six through 10, and then the full album with the final five songs included. Each third has its own thematic and musical links; the first is bombastic, with lead single “Simmer,” ode-to-homebodyism “Cinnamon,” and the sleeper hit “Sudden Desire” all sounding exactly nothing like Paramore’s output. The second third, and my personal favorite, has Williams confronting her failed marriage on “Dead Horse” (the best song on the album and one of the best of the year), and delivering a Blondiesque aspirational mantra in “Over Yet.” The final third is weirder than the rest, and features a veritable club banger in “Sugar On The Rim” among the mix.
More than any specific songs, though, what kept me playing this album over and over (and over) again is that it feels like the natural artistic progression for the lead singer of a band that already re-invented itself many times over. Williams sounds more confident in her own sound here than any debut artist should, and the choice to release this solo rather than with her bandmates (though both Taylor York and Zac Farro play on the album, with York producing the record; he’s really always been Paramore’s secret weapon) allows her to bounce around a plethora of genres and singing styles. She even sounds like Bjork at the start of “Watch Me While I Bloom.”
One of my bigger disappointments in this disappointing year is that her New York concert dates were cancelled due to the pandemic, because these songs demand to be heard at full blast. I’ll eventually get to see Petals For Armor performed live. In the meantime, I kept returning to the record for the thrill of finding new things from one of my favorite artists ever. Did I ever expect Hayley Williams to release this exact album? Never. Was it everything I wanted it to be anyway? Hell yes it was. - Luis Paez-Pumar
This year, I listened to a bunch of new records and enjoyed myself, and I could have written about any one of them (except YHLQMDLG, since Giri filled out the form first) and we could all smile and think about what a nice record that was. But when I close my eyes, it's not Bad Bunny I hear.
Building slowly but surely like a bouncy house being filled with aerosolized methamphetamine vapor, I hear a beat. Is that the theme song for one of those inflatable used car dealership guys? Is that the soundtrack to a video game about selling ox tranquilizers? Is that the siren call of a robot coming to kill you? No.
It is the Bom Vídeo. - Patrick Redford
Everything Bad Bunny Has Ever Made
Some facts about Bad Bunny, in no particular order:
- Bad Bunny is the last big-time pop musician who is actually, recognizably cool. Well, him and Rihanna, per experts. The rest are just kind of there, rich.
- Bad Bunny dresses outlandishly, as if he would like big parties.
- Bad Bunny doesn't actually like big parties, he's a shy guy who just goes directly home at the end of concerts.
- Early in lockdown, I started setting mundane cooking videos to Bad Bunny: jalapeno charring on a stovetop, garlic and scallions sizzling at wok's bottom, things of that nature. This is the sort of party Bad Bunny might enjoy.
- The way there are personal pizzas, there are personal dance parties, and when Bad Bunny's perfect 2020 album YHLQMDLG is on loop, it is impossible not to partake in one, even when the whole world has been dance-party-proofed.
- Bad Bunny can reel off 20 songs that sound familiar enough to instantly vibe to on first contact, yet different enough for each to burrow into its own furrow of your brain.
- You don't need to know any Spanish to fully enjoy Bad Bunny because everyone I know who does doesn't understand him, either.
- The number of different ways Bad Bunny can make his voice sound is said to be staggeringly high: slack and menaced, howling and hopeful. Experts are still tallying it up.
- If you listen to Bad Bunny long enough with someone, they can become your wife. Experts can confirm.
- If you listen to Bad Bunny long enough alone, your streaming service's year-end genre ranking will send up the surreal "Trap Latino." (Which is not, contrary to my friend's rapid diagnosis, a problematically named character from Death Stranding.)
- If you listen to Bad Bunny's "LA CANCION" in the faint drizzle of a temperate rain forest you will chase that feeling for the rest of your hearing days. - Giri Nathan
"Everything Starts," by Secret Machines
Two of my favorite artists—Bob Mould and The Struts—put out new albums during the pandemic, and both were predictably excellent. I could have put either of those guys in this slot and fawned over them the way I always do. But Secret Machines’ continued excellence wasn’t something that I, or a great many other people, could have ever envisioned happening after founding member Ben Curtis died of cancer in 2013. (Ben had already left the band years prior, but his death felt like the end of them anyway.) Secret Machines came back all the same, and they don’t seem to have lost any of their downright elegant shitstomping in the interim. This is the best song off that new album. It’s one of their best songs, period. I’m sure Pitchfork gave it a 5.7. - Drew Magary
If you want to revisit and by extension get infuriated about the invasion of Iraq (both times), Blowback is a fantastic, limited-series podcast. It’s a dark form of remembering some guys: You’ll recall Paul Wolfowitz, look up what he’s doing now, and frown as you realize that he’s not wasting away in the abandoned remnants of Abu Ghraib. That’s about as much as I can say without getting into [redacted] territory. Recommend it to any malleable dingus you know who was missing George W. Bush over the past four years. - Samer Kalaf
Like all children, I had a special catalogue of annoying questions that I liked to ask my parents. One in particular was why they never saw the Beatles live. This seemed to me a gross and obvious life error. The Beatles were a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, one of the best bands ever. My parents always replied with the usual explanations: work, classes, family, life. That never satisfied me. Like every child ever, I swore I would be better than my parents. I would not make the same mistake.
And then I nearly did it anyway. For years I had heard about the Korean band BTS. Their songs came across my playlists and news about them selling out stadiums around the world crawled across my screens. But I never had the time. I was always too busy with, you know, work, classes, family, life.
The pandemic brought my life, like yours, to a crashing halt. Suddenly there was no place to go, less work to do, and the only way I would dare see my family was on Zoom. One day, as I wrangled a particularly tricky piece of writing, I decided the only way to finish it was the old Pomodoro Technique: Write for 25 minutes then take a five-minute break. To fill my five-minute breaks in my small and insular pandemic life, I decided that during each break I would watch a BTS video. I don't know why I chose them at that moment other than an idle pang of curiosity; they seemed to have a lot of YouTube videos, more than enough to get me through the day.
In a phenomenon that others have already detailed very well, I suddenly could tell you everything about BTS: their names—RM, Jin, Suga, j-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook—what each member does in the band, how they started, their key moments, their most famous live performances, the various subunits, the stacked odds against their enormous success and, of course, their massive fanbase, ARMY. Everything just clicked in my brain, like seven puzzle pieces snapping together. I went from wondering why they were so popular to being genuinely puzzled as to why anyone would deny themselves the pleasure of BTS.
So I am here today to tell you two things: One, do not be a dummy and ignore the next greatest band in history as it is performing right before our eyes. Two, start with the Wings album. For the love of all things holy, start with Wings. Then you should listen to You Never Walk Alone, which is Wings with some new songs added, including one of their best songs of all time, "Spring Day," a beautiful piece about longing and loss, whose video hints at Korea's Sewol ferry disaster. After that, I would suggest either The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever or Love Yourself: Tear.
Don't get freaked out about it not being in English. You can turn on subtitles on YouTube. Or follow along with a few of the excellent translation sites maintained by members of ARMY. Personally, I recommend Doolset Lyrics and Do You, Bangtan. And because this is BTS, please watch them live. A good performance that will fit cleanly into any work break is their 2016 show at the Mnet Asia Music Awards (Jimin dances blindfolded!) or their recent Melon Music Awards performance (Jimin and Jungkook do a pas de deux!). If you've got more time, splurge on their award show performances that double as mini-concerts, like the 2018 performance at the MMAs (Jimin performs a traditional Korean fan dance!), or their 2019 performance at the MMAs (Jimin does a modern dance solo to I Need You Girl!). Or just go right for their appearance on Carpool Karaoke, in which James Corden, like myself, basically declares Jimin is his bias. I don't believe it is humanly possible to watch their edition of Carpool Karaoke and not burst out smiling. I have watched it, in this godawful year, so many times.
I wrap this up knowing that this is, in some ways, a failure as a piece of music writing. I was supposed to write about why this song is great, or why that turn of phrase is genius, or about the brilliance of a certain use of sound. But music, like all art, is about how it makes you feel. The Beatles are wildly popular because somehow it all came together for those four boys from Liverpool—they had the stuff, and they made billions of people feel. The music industry did its best to rip them off, but nothing was ever quite the same. It needed to be John, Paul, George, and Ringo in those suits, with those haircuts, playing those instruments at that time.
I could try to explain to you why BTS seems to have the same power, but what can I say that journalist Youngdae Kim didn't say in his book about BTS? At some point it's like trying to explain the beauty of a sunset or what makes Edward Hopper paintings so powerful. It's RM, Jin, Suga, j-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook in these suits, with their (many colored) haircuts, dancing these dance moves at this time. They have the stuff. They make billions of people feel. Don't make the mistake I nearly made. It's still not too late to get excited about this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, the biggest band in the world. - Diana Moskovitz
Japanese City Pop
I thought I was coming here to sell praises for Khruangbin, the funk-dipped dream sounds trio that made me question my grounding assumptions about ambient music and eastern-influenced jam bands. Their fluidity—at times extremely chill background sounds but also the up-tempo nod your head, "this should be on when I walk into a party" vibes—is what dug into me in 2020. Whatever it is you may have missed from the world in 2020, Khruangbin can provide the tableau. (I recommend “Time (You and I),” “Evan Finds the Third Room,” and “So We Won’t Forget.”)
But then I realized if I was going to talk about music that became important to me in 2020, I had to talk about Japanese City Pop. Somewhere in the early days of quarantine, after grocery stores could be reliably restocked but before restaurants and bars opened for takeout, I found a YouTube channel called My Analog Journal. A few minutes watching the overhead cam focused squarely on turntables and mixers gives you an idea who the star is: vinyl, generally, and extremely rare records in particular. It was there I first heard this genre that I can only try to describe as synth, disco, and yacht rock all showing up unexpectedly to party in your apartment together and steal all your booze.
If you are of a certain age you immediately clock city pop as "'80s music," because it immediately reads as the type of shit you would hear in a movie starring Michael Douglas in a feathered mullet and aviators that got second billing. I don’t know any Japanese, and yet the pure, uncut pop energy that comes through is so strong that you can’t help but bop, even if you’re by yourself at your desk or in your kitchen. I promise you it’s worth a try. - Justin Ellis
Tanya Tucker At Wolf Trap
Choosing 2020’s most memorable music was easy for me. It was the only concert I attended all year.
I’ve been going to shows pretty much my whole life. My first unsupervised concert was Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, and Nazareth at RFK Stadium in DC. I was in teen dirtball heaven. And I never stopped going to see bands. I started doing freelance music reviews for the Washington Post in the early 1990s and never stopped that, either. By now, I’ve seen about most acts anybody over 30 has ever heard of at least once.
But in 2020, I caught exactly one live show. The Post sent me to see Tanya Tucker at the Barns of Wolf Trap, a cozy and rustic shed outside Washington, D.C., owned by the National Park Service. Now 62, she’s been famous since before I went to that pre-crash Skynyrd extravaganza. She was on the pop charts at 13 years old and on the cover of Rolling Stone and tabloid fodder soon after (Movie Mirror’s cover in October 1975 had pictures of her and the King with the headline “He Taught Her Tricks NO 16 Year Old Should Know!”) She had her career revived last year by Brandi Carlile, who plucked Tucker off the state fair circuit and got her in the studio. The resulting album brought Tucker the first two Grammy awards of her career, just one week before this night. She did the great new stuff (the Grammy-inducing “Bring My Flowers Now”) and the greater old stuff (including 1973’s “What’s Your Mama’s Name” and 1987’s “Love Me Like You Used To”).
But, like all good shows, the night wasn’t just about the music. It was great seeing Tucker, who has gone public with confessions about her battles with mental illness, performing with so much spunk. She was wild as hell and kept her band on the ready for her to go off script. Which she did repeatedly. Her wildest and longest break came while taking a hit off a bottle of her own designer line of tequila, then not being able to say no to anybody who crashed the stage and begged for a sample. The lines for free hooch got long and a kind of a hayseed holy communion commenced. I was in live-show heaven.
Then she ended the night by going full wacky by dedicating her vintage country smash, “Delta Dawn,” to... Kobe Bryant. “I would give both my Grammys back if we could bring Kobe Bryant back,” she said in her hoarse, liquor-infused drawl.
The world closed mere weeks later, and concerts were among the casualties. Recorded music is fine, but if there's a choice, give me the live stuff every time. Streaming services and YouTube videos don’t come with tequila riots and insane nods to Kobe. If and when concerts come back, dammit, I’m gonna go see a band. - Dave McKenna