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Top Five Songs of 2020 – Neeharika’s List

31 Dec

As a complement to my Top Five Albums of 2020 list, here are the songs whose endless replays helped me get through this year.

Honorable mentions

And now for my top five songs of the year:

5. “Your Love (Déjà vu)” by Glass Animals

Clocking in at #5 is this early single from British pop band Glass Animals’ Dreamland album that was released this year. As we talked about in our review of the album, the singles from Dreamland were really good and everything else was so-so. Well, “Your Love (Déjà vu)” is one of those ridiculously good songs in the first category, featuring crisp hip-hop like beats, electric vocals from singer Dave Bayley and an all-around fun vibe. This is as catchy as the Glass Animals get – don’t miss this one.

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Feb. 2020 edition.

4. “The Adults Are Talking” by the Strokes

Over the year, we’ve highlighted “Bad Decisions” and “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” from the Strokes’ The New Abnormal (2020) album on our Monthly Playlists; but as we come to the close of the year, it’s the album opener “The Adults Are Talking” that most stands out to me. The Strokes get your feet tapping and your head bopping along from the first seconds of the classic, clean drum line, and it only gets better from there. The icing on the cake is a particularly good vocal effort from Julian Casablancas, especially in the sky-high falsetto at the end. As the first sound you hear on The New Abnormal, “The Adults Are Talking” provided a symbolic sigh of relief to Strokes fans everywhere that the band is alive, well and perhaps better than ever.

Read our full album review here.

3. “Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year (which, let’s admit, not a bad plan for 2020), you would have heard Dua Lipa’s mega-hit “Don’t Start Now” at some point. The irrepressible dance-pop number has graced radio stations, talk shows, award shows and all other COVID-ready media; in any other year, it would have likely been on the playlist of every club in the world. Dua Lipa’s entire Future Nostalgia album is an homage to the fun and vivacity of 1970s and 1980s music. And “Don’t Start Now” is the album’s shining disco ball of a crown jewel, with its pulsing bass line, Dua’s staccato vocals, random cowbell, handclaps and so on.

Read our full album review here.

2. “WAP” by Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion

Perhaps the most talked-about song of the year – for one reason or the other – is “WAP” by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion. The powerhouse song by the two reigning queens of rap instantly shot to fame with its sexually-explicit lyrics, inciting the wrath of right-wing ghouls everywhere. I consider “WAP” to be iconic, unapologetic and more feminist than most things that claim to be. Cardi and Megan spend the entire song detailing exactly what men should do to please them. The reverse has been covered in songs by men about women ad infinitum; so why should boys have all the fun?

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Aug. 2020 edition.

1. “XS” by Rina Sawayama

As I mentioned on my AOTY list, Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA was undoubtedly the best debut album of the year, and the brightest star on the tracklist is the gaudy, poppy “XS”. Rina’s whole vibe is a cool mixture of 90s / early 00s music across all genres, and this song follows that make-up too. Her breathy, slightly nasal vocals – reminiscent of Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears – sync perfectly with the rock-tinged instrumentals brings to mind the early 00s pop-rock acts (Good Charlotte, Simple Plan) which were all the rage back in the day. Lyrically, too, “XS” does well. As the name cleverly suggests, is a critique on the excesses of capitalism (“Cartiers and Tesla X’s, Calabasas, I deserve it / Call me crazy, call me selfish, I’m the baddest and I’m worth it”) – to which Rina cleverly alludes in the song’s music video. All in all, a great effort and – for me – the song of the year.

Read our full song review in the Monthly Playlist: Apr. 2020 edition.

Top Five Albums of 2020 – Neeharika’s List

30 Dec

End-of-year introspection has an entirely new depth in 2020. There was profound sadness, disappointment, discomfort, dismay – but also hope. Hope in the vaccines that have arrived at breakneck speed, hope in the stronger relationships that emerged out of quarantine, and hope in continuing to keep up whatever gave you joy in this hellish year. For me, the year was made better by the presence of the following five albums, plus a few others that I’ve highlighted below. Read on for my take of the Top Five Albums of 2020.

Honorable mentions

  • What’s Your Pleasure? by Jessie Ware: Ridiculously fun, dance-worthy disco jam. (Full review here)
  • RTJ4 by Run the Jewels: Powerful, well-penned and a perfect soundtrack to the racial turmoil this year. (Full review here)

5. A Hero’s Death by Fontaines D.C.

Irish punk band Fontaines D.C. debuted in 2019 with the spectacular Dogrel (which also made it to my list last year), and followed it up in 2020 with a deeper sophomore album – A Hero’s Death. The album was written while the band was on a whirlwind global tour for Dogrel, and consequently highlights their thoughts on fame, identity, America and so much more. With mainstream success comes mainstream expectations; A Hero’s Death sees the band rebelling on tracks like “I Don’t Belong” and “I Was Not Born”. “Living in America” dissects the reality of the United States of America from the mythical land-of-the-free in Irish minds while “Televised Mind” comes back to the theme of the stilted thoughts in today’s consumerist world – a favorite theme of Fontaines D.C. (and punk rock bands everywhere). All in all, this is a great record that proves there’s a lot more to come from Fontaines D.C.

Read our full review here.

4. The New Abnormal by The Strokes

Few records have ever been as perfectly titled as The Strokes’ sixth studio album The New Abnormal. The album was announced in February – pre-pandemic – and by the time it came out in April, the whole world was in an entirely different place. In the wilderness years between their fifth album Comedown Machine (2013) and this one, the band released a sum total of three songs (plus a remix). Most of the members used the seven years to work on side projects and there were rumors that the Strokes were done for. Happily though, the situation now seems as far from that as it has ever been, because The New Abnormal sounds like a perfectly-curated playlist of the Strokes’ creative output – together and apart. There are of course the classic “Strokes-y” songs like “The Adults Are Talking” that could do pretty well on their earlier records; but there’s also tracks like the melancholy “At The Door” with its clear Voidz edge and “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” with its touches of Albert Hammond Jr.’s solo work. On The New Abnormal, the Strokes sound like they’re working well together and having fun again, and that shows in the music.

Read our full review here.

3. Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa

If you’re a pop / R&B star not named Billie Eilish, chances are you’ve tried your hand at dance-pop / disco this year. We had 80s-inspired music from Kylie Minogue, Jessie Ware, The Weeknd and so many others, but none can come close to the disco perfection on Future Nostalgia. The album is pretty much just straight hits from top to bottom. The metaphorical strobe lights start flashing right from the opening beats of the bouncy, irrepressible title track; and it’s a full-blown dance party by the time we get to the massive hit singles like “Don’t Start Now”, “Physical” and “Break My Heart”. Dua has also excelled in live shows this year (of all years), taking and running with any opportunity she gets – see her stripped-back Tiny Desk session or her magnetic AMAs performance of “Levitating”. Future Nostalgia is fresh, fun, timeless and an instant mood booster at a time when we all needed it the most.

Read our full review here.

2. SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama

SAWAYAMA by Japanese-English singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama is, in my mind, undoubtedly the debut album of the year. Imagine a mixtape of all the music you illegally downloaded off Napster in the 90s and early 00s; but somehow all the tracks have magically mashed up across genre lines – that’s more or less what SAWAYAMA is. For example, “STFU!” sounds exactly like a Britney Spears cover of a Korn song, while “Dynasty” has all the harmonized pop extravagance of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys, with a hint of Evanescence-style elven vocals. If those come off as odd mash-ups, it’s purely a testament to how well this album has been visualized, produced, mixed and implemented. Songs like “XS” and “Comme des Garcons” are crisp, campy, catchy and everything that good pop music ought to be. Rina’s confidence and integrity of artistic vision belie her discography length, and a legion of fans now eagerly await her next move.

Read our full review here.

1. Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez by Gorillaz

Until about late November, when we in the music review hobby start charting out our end-of-year lists, I honestly did not think of the new Gorillaz album on this list. Indeed, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez was just released a few weeks ago, and although they have been steadily releasing great singles all year, I didn’t think the combined package would hold up. However, the more I started running through Song Machine, the more I was certain that this was the album of the year.

On Song Machine, Damon Albarn has turned the traditional album-single release tradition on its head. Every song is a single in its own right, and has been more or less treated as such, each with a separate release date, music video, accompanying snippets and so on. Release mechanics aside, the music holds up too: every single song on the 11-track album is worthy of the listener’s attention. Moreover, one must applaud the sheer audacity of throwing together musicians across genres – for example, Elton John with rapper 6LACK on “Pink Phantom” – and creating something totally unique and magical. From the opening notes of the otherworldly title track (“Strange Timez” feat. The Cure’s Robert Smith) to the high-energy closing track (“Momentary Bliss” feat. British rapper slowthai and punk band Slaves), Song Machine is the closest we’ll get to an eclectic and electric music festival this year. Virtually of course – what else could it be in 2020?

Read our full review here.

Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

23 May

Nostalgia in pop is having a moment. The Weeknd and Dua Lipa, for instance, have mined this vein heavily, but no one has done it with the intelligence of Rina Sawayama. The trick to nostalgia is not to sound like what music used to sound like, but to sound like what you remember things to feel like. It’s not about the sound. It’s about the feel. I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t the most sophisticated of listeners in the early nineties and much of what I was listening to wasn’t that sophisticated either. Sawayama draws from wells like Korn, Evasnescence and above all Britney for the album, but through an astonishing alchemy serves something as sharp as any of the most experimental pop today.

The best tracks, “XS” and “Comme Des Garcons” have all of the energy of Britney, but with a complexity that it’s hard to imagine Britney bringing. “STFU!” is as hard and as fun as any Korn track, but it’s not dumb and that’s a pretty big difference. Her upbringing further sharpens the album. “Akasaka Sad” and “Dynasty” both layer in her personal story and in doing so further evolve the music. The pop she draws from never thought to speak of the immigrant experience. She astutely and cuttingly speaks of tourists in “Tokyo Love Hotel” and the storytelling there is made better for the earlier contrast of “Bad Friend.”

It does occasionally slip too close to the well and so “Paradisin” has nothing interesting. The sax there almost sticks it, but is just too cheesy and her voice is not enough to carry the song through. Similarly, “Chosen Family” is just a traditional pop ballad and can’t hold up to the more interesting music here.

At its best though, this is absolutely incredible pop. It’s whip-smart and yet highly approachable from its sources. Outgrowing old tastes has never been this fun.

Monthly Playlist – Apr. 2020

28 Apr

We say this almost every month, but April 2020 was truly one of the best months of music that we’ve ever been through. There was, of course, Fiona Apple’s universally-lauded Fetch the Bolt Cutters; on the very same day, English pop star Rina Sawayama released what is easily the best debut album since Invasion of Privacy (2018). We even got new tracks from reclusive acts like The Strokes and Jamie xx. Read on for a round-up of the best five songs from this month.

5. “Young and Beautiful” by Glass Animals

This is technically not a new song, but we love Glass Animals’ gauzy cover of Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful”, released as part of a growing collection called, fittingly, Quarantine Covers. Dave Bayley’s spindly, whispery voice and bare production lends itself perfectly to the track – the result being a fresh yet respectful cover of a truly classic song.

As a bonus, check out another song in Quarantine Covers – a hypnotic take on Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”.

4. “Shameika” by Fiona Apple

 Fiona Apple has had a sparse but monumental career, spanning five increasingly unrestrained albums from her debut Tidal (1995) to Fetch the Bolt Cutters (2020). This latest album currently enjoys an unprecedented perfect score on Metacritic. Is it worth the fawning all-round praise? Somewhat – but not entirely (see our in-depth review here).

Perhaps the most widely-shareable song on the album is “Shameika”, a rollicking tale about schoolgirl Fiona getting some tough love from a slightly older girl. The eponymous Shameika tells Fiona that she has potential, and Fiona uses that mantra to get through the bullying and boredom of middle-school life. We particularly love the rolling piano and Fiona’s jazzy storytelling on this track. Fiona recently shared that Shameika, indeed, turned out to be a real person (and not a figment of her imagination as she initially thought), so that’s cool too.

3. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” by The Strokes

On April 10th, the Strokes released their much-awaited sixth album and thankfully, it lived up to expectations. The presciently-named The New Abnormal (in-depth review here) certainly featured some new direction for the band, but there were also some classic, old-school Strokes tracks. The fun and catchy “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” falls squarely in the later category. Kicked off by a bouncy, synth-heavy riff, the song features Julian Casablancas singing about the good old days over feel-good guitar work from Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi. It’s just a great tune.

2. “Idontknow” by Jamie xx

Idontknow”, a new single from English producer and DJ Jamie Smith (and one-half of The xx), is a revelation in its sheer use of beats. The track starts off with almost African-like beats that are sure to get you tapping along with some part of your body. Just when you think that’s all there is to it, the track ramps up into overdrive at approximately the 78-second mark. And when we say overdrive, we are not joking. The beats double in speed, and Jamie Smith expertly overlays mysterious vocals snippets, with the effect being a frenetic, craze-inducing romper of a track. It’s addictive in its simplicity, and we highly recommend it.

1. “XS” by Rina Sawayama

It may seem like Japanese-British pop singer Rina Sawayama comes to us fully-formed, but the 29-year-old has been working on her sound for some time. She had a couple of well-received tracks between 2013 and 2016, followed by a self-produced mini-album in 2017. This month, she finally released her official debut album – the eponymous SAWAYAMA – and it was well worth the build-up.

Sawayama’s sound is a beguiling mix of late-90s pop (think Britney and Mariah) and early 2000s moody rock (think Evanescence): nostalgic in its components parts but wholly original in its combination. The best song this month was definitely “XS”, a commentary on late-stage capitalism with a killer pop hook (we told you it’s original). “Luxury and opulence, Cartiers and Tesla X’s / Calabasas, I deserve it,” says Rina, before begging for “just a little bit more, little bit of excess”. Even if you don’t listen to the words in detail, you just can’t miss the pop sounds from the millennial Rina’s 90s / early 00s childhood.

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