I’d like to begin with a question. Has anybody reading this wrap been in a confined space more often in one year than in 2020? It’s a statistic that has practically halted the film, food, and travel industries, but Coronavirus hasn’t stopped music in 2020 so much as it changed the game. With no nightlife scene, festivals, or even small venues artists had every reason to withhold releases, foregoing a challenging virtual promotional circuit. While critics tried to connect nearly every quality release to the pandemic from Dua Lipa to Jay Electronica, much of what was released seemed to respond to the moment. Luckily, there was a lot of great stuff that all naturally became the soundtrack to home life. The female singer songwriter dominated the year with bedroom pop and folk receiving an unsurprising surge, while the return of Fiona Apple and HAIM provided major album events. The people at SMACK found the abundance of the year’s “A” material pleasantly surprising, overwhelming even. We have decided to catalogue the year’s songs, albums, events, and major players in a yearbook style selecting everything from “Album of the Year” to “Flavour of the Month.” Here is our 2020 Year in Review.
While a major asterisk casted a shade on 2020 with the disappearance of the live format; the delay of the Rage Against the Machine reunion; months without in studio television performances; and potential omissions from generational voices like Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, HAIM’s decision to release Women In Music Pt. III, their best album thus far, was egoless. Their 2020 trajectory reads like the decisions of perhaps the smartest band in music.
After many received Something to Tell You as a case of sophomore slump, HAIM and their producer Ariel Rechtshaid seemingly went back to the drawing board. Enlisting Rostam Batmanglij, who with Reichtshaid brought a classic, more natural sound, the five of them simplified the songs, with arrangements less flashy than previous HAIM material, but no less impressive. After a brief delay, HAIM released the record to rapturous response, many calling it their best work yet. The tender songs were more captivating, poppier numbers more stripped down; the harmonies were more complex, the tracklist more diverse in genre. The band didn’t let the pandemic blockade their promotional circuit either; giving TV and virtual performances, posting guitar and dance lessons, and giving countless interviews.
HAIM’s dynamic ensures that they are subjected to more reductive questions from the press than the average “woman in music.” There are three of them, they are sisters by blood, and they play nearly everything on their records which causes the press (frequently British) to second guess their genius or ask inappropriate questions. A crucial part of their story, the notion that HAIM doesn’t get a seat at the big boy table comes up frequently in any piece written about the group, depicting them as women in the current climate instead of just a great band.
In fact, HAIM are the closest thing we had to a real popular band this year. They each play multiple instruments with expert feel, their synergy is unreplicable, they make uncomplicated, beautifully sung, well structured pop songs, and their albums feature a range of sound wide enough to flex their versatility. They were good enough in 2013 to achieve notoriety, seven years later they’re better in nearly every way. No asterisk.
Best Music Doc: Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan
Best Use of Music For a Visual Medium: “Fever” by Peggy Lee for Queen’s Gambit
No one should have been surprised by Bob Dylan’s impetuous 2020 comeback; it wouldn’t be the first time he took a sharp 180. After his later ‘70s output began a steep artistic decline, we were eventually compensated by Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. Now, after a ranine Christmas set and a risible triptych of Frank Sinatra ballads, Rough and Rowdy Ways buoyed our collectively low-sunken standards. And it was well worth it.
With the unmistakably Dylanesque aura of nothing-to-prove, Rough and Rowdy Ways is an unstoppable force of lyricism manifesting the mastery of an artist who can not only sing about anything, but about everything. The flagship “A Murder Most Foul” shows that Dylan, like most boomers, never really forgot about the Kennedy Assassination and the sunny optimism that was lost. Some saw the namechecking throughout “Murder” and “I Contain Multitudes” as an attempt to relevance amongst the diseased election year tumult, but it’s really Dylan doing what his best political songs have always done: connecting the dots on the Zeitgeist.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is still an undeniably slippery album. Dylan’s hallowed figures here are Walt Whitman, JFK, Julius Cesar and… Jimmy Reed? To hazard a guess at the common cultural denominator is to be the quintessential Bob Dylan audience, to stoutly stick one’s finger into the electrical socket of Americana.
Before 2020’s end, Dylan was wheeling and dealing in the C-Suite, negotiating the most significant commercial deal in music this year. On December 7th it was announced Dylan sold the publishing rights to his entire back catalogue to Universal Music Group (UMG) for the staggering estimated amount of $300 million (that’s a lot of Bolo Ties!). This means that the UMG bells go cha-ching every time a Bob Dylan song is streamed, downloaded, pressed on vinyl, or filmed (including Under a Red Sky’s Slash-featuring “Wiggle Wiggle”).
While the details are not public, Dylan likely still retains control of his masters, meaning that past and future releases by Dylan will be administered by his holding company, though UMG will still get their beak wet. We would love to point the finger and call “Sell Out!”, but it must be remembered that Bob Dylan the man and his music have appeared in advertisements for decades, promoting Chrysler Automobiles, Victoria’s Secret Lingerie and something called an “iPod”. So in a big way the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman has already sold out, the cheque is just a whole lot bigger now.
Most Polarizing Artist: 100 Gecs
2020 was owned by Megan Thee Stallion.
Releasing her debut studio album, an EP, ten singles, and six features the 25 year old reached an omnipresence only achieved by rising talent. It’s a level of overall popularity that has yet to have reached its peak, though the freshness brings an often unbeatable aura of excitement. Much of this could be attributed to delivering two of the most ubiquitous songs of the year with “WAP” which cracked debut streaming records in the thick of summer and “Savage”, a song so versatile it went from bop to tik-tok anthem to mammoth Beyonce collab to political statement. What she lacked in originality she made up for in attitude and raw sex appeal. But disguised behind new aged obscenities and wouldbe club anthems is the perspective of a whip smart emcee whose lyrics focus on shifting the power dynamic in a genre dominated by men.
Between suing her label in order to be released from her contract and being hospitalized after allegedly taking two bullets from Tory Lanez (two stories that seemingly did not receive their deserved attention), Stallion became a symbol. One whose story was indicative of the current challenges women in hip hop face regarding artistic freedom, being vilified for capitalizing on one's sexuality, and being able to talk about being in compromising situations.
Pup’s Scorpion Hill Beer
This IDLES T-shirt
Nick Cave’s Hyatt Girls Pornographic Wallpaper*
Erykah Badu’s Vagina Scented Incense
*as of 2020 this has sold zero rolls
Bassist of the Year: Thundercat
Guitarist of the Year: Mark Bowen (IDLES)
Drummer of the Year: Fiona Apple
Best Band Name: Dogleg
Worst Band Name: Cignature
As small businesses are decimated by the day and Amazon monopolizes commerce, opulence has never felt so implicit in its intent. Rina Sawayama’s “XS” is the cautionary tale for this strange year’s bedroom dance parties. It’s a rhythm that makes you move your body in the true essence of the dancing Morty gif, shaking your hips with Cardi B confidence while processing the nihilism of what you’re listening to. In these dark times we have to dance, but Sawayama isn’t letting our ethics off the hook. Call it catharsis. Call it introspection. Call it the definitive single of 2020.
“XS” lives up to its title in its overstimulating sonics; anachronistic bursts of nu-metal guitar mixed between Sawayama processed, 2000’s pop-esque vocals and building strings that feel right out of a Bernard Herrmann score. Sawayama becomes a monster bred by popstar excess and Wall Street insatiability, ravaging the Earth of its most trendy clothes, cars, and Cartier jewelry because she’s the baddest and she’s worth it. But like any good villain, she possesses just enough self-awareness to recognize the detriment of her consumerism— knowing “the price we paid is unbelievable”, a sentiment she may wish to share with certain real-life Lex Luthorian business oligarchs (not that we’re naming any names here at SMACK).
It's the biting satire "XS" casts on the consumerism and greed that is destroying our planet met with its endless pop replay value that makes it indicative of our current social turbulence. In this flawless single, Sawayama gave us the flowery escapism we desperately needed and the relentless self-reflection we couldn't avoid.
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Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
Uncut Gems + a mix for the Safdie Brothers’ soundcloud radio station
The Weeknd - After Hours + backing duties on SNL
Moses Sumney - Grae
Katie Crutchfield spent the past decade distinguishing herself as one of the more consistent innovators of the indie rock scene, with each of her four studio albums garnering critical praise and growing her underground following. With such a recognizable aesthetic, many fans were shocked by the tonal shift she embraced on St. Cloud, eschewing the hazy distortion of her earlier records for simple blues patterns and a subtle vocal twang. However, knowing she grew up listening to Loretta Lynn in Alabama, other fans were surprised it took this long for her to embrace her inner Lucinda Williams. The result is potentially the best alternative country album since Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Sobriety is one of the main running themes of Waxahatchee's music, which underscores the transformative focus of the entire project. The relaxed instrumental palette shifts the focus squarely to her songwriting, highlighting the literary growth and self-awareness that separates this album from her previous work. Her ability to sharpen her lyrical acuity while seamlessly transitioning to an entirely new genre also reflects the mastery of her songcraft. Despite the new direction and understated instrumentation, there isn’t a single filler song – or line – on the entire album. Very few songwriters have ever juggled that breadth of range with such focus, precision and honesty.
Definitive Lyric of 2020:
“Stayin' quiet when they killin' niggas, but you speak loud
When we ride, got opinions comin' from a place of priv'
Sicker than the COVID, how they did him on the ground
Speakin' of the COVID, is it still goin' around?”
-“Lockdown” by Anderson Paak
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4 Songs About Coronavirus:
Iggy Pop - “Dirty Little Virus”
Iceage - “Lockdown Blues”
Turbo, Gunna, and Young Thug - “Quarantine Clean”
Randy Newman - “Stay Away”
3 Songs About Trump:
De La Soul - “Remove 45”
AHONHI - “R.N.C. 2020”
Neil Young - “Looking For A Leader”
Least Inappropriate “WAP” Lyric:
“Make it cream, make me scream
Out in public, make a scene
I don't cook, I don't clean
But let me tell you how I got this ring”
Stuff Travis Scott Made Popular in 2020:
fatherhood / “Girl Dads”
The Cactus Jack Foundation
Michael Jordan’s Highland Park Mansion
“White Tee” by Dem Franchize Boyz
Nike Dunk Lows
Best Fast Song: Thundercat - “I Love Louis Cole”
Best Slow Song: Fiona Apple - “Ladies”
Best Verse: Killer Mike - “Walkin’ in the Snow”, RTJ4
The way I see it, you're probably freest from the ages one to four
Around the age of five you're shipped away for your body to be stored
They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores
And they predictin' prison population by who scoring the lowest
And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me
And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free
And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, "I can't breathe"
When you first glance at the album cover of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, a black backdrop covered by two pieces of yellow ribbon, crayon-coloured font, and a dog’s forehead centered by a picture of one eager looking Fiona Apple- it isn’t exactly what you would expect from a bona fide masterwork. It looks cobbled, disheveled, made up completely on the fly and ran with without a second’s notice. But what could be taken as apathy becomes poignant in the context of the year it was released. Nothing is permanent and everything is in flux. Perfectionism has no place in a world that cannot keep up with itself.
Yes, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is further away from glossy and pristine than anything else in Apple’s back catalogue— it’s all the better for it. If 2020 could be captured in sound, if future generations could have a historical vessel to feel the group consciousness of western civilization in the midst of a pandemic, it would be Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Apple’s frantic piano riffs and experimental percussion are embedded in the rhythm and stagnancy of our current collective reality. It supplies as much solidarity as it does solace.
FtBC is an album about shackles and the desire to escape them. Guided by a doctorate-level knowledge in songwriting and whatever Apple deems worthy to use as a drum, the record chugs along with the momentum of a bullet train. Songs will abide pop structure to a tee until Apple lets the foundations crumble at her command, sometimes deciding to rebuild and other times allowing the song to evaporate in sonic clouds of dog barks and her signature languished banshee squeals— picking up the pieces and starting again on the next track.
How appropriate that a record about confinement refuses to stay comfortable. Themes of imprisonment act as the album’s connective tissue. Abusive relationships, mental health, power dynamics, memories, and good old-fashioned heartbreak become musical jail cells while Apple urges the listener to break free through acknowledgement and action. In a year of sickness, police brutality, overdoses, fascism, and femicide, who in their right mind doesn’t want to break free? On her most unfiltered and unrestrained record, Apple manages to capture the collective anger, exhaustion, and hope of a nation in peril and provided the best musical coping mechanism anyone could ask for.
Most Underappreciated Albums:
Childish Gambino - 3.15.20
Machine Gun Kelly - Tickets to My Downfall
Metz - Atlas Vending
Samia - The Baby
Sault - Untitled (Black is)
Tricky - Fall to Pieces
Most Disappointing Album: King Krule - Man Alive!
Best Live Album: Father John Misty - Off Key in Hamburg
Everyone Who Played a Bernie Sanders Rally in 2020:
When enigmatic producer Rick Rubin invited André 3000 for a rare interview at his famed Shangri La Studio estate, listeners and fans knew to anticipate something special; what they didn’t expect was the most candid and entertaining interview of Three Stack’s career. Outkast fans reveled in insider details like how “Prototype” was intended for Janet Jackson or how Rage Against the Machine inspired the urgency of “Bombs Over Baghdad”. Most importantly, André addresses his much discussed reluctance to return to hip hop or the live arena.
Though Rubin took a backseat, his background as perhaps the most important influence on modern music along with their mutual connections played a key role throughout the discussion. Rubin and Benjamin became so enveloped in the conversation that they went an hour overschedule. The highlights from the entire discussion were condensed into a single hour for Rubin’s Broken Record podcast. The two discussed Dré's fashion and musical influences from The Dogg Pound to Hieroglyphics and how he found his own voice, his recent fascination with experimental composer Steve Reich, and the subversion of albums like KID A and 808s and Heartbreak. Eventually the conversation evolved into less about Outkast or Def Jam and more of a meeting between two legends about middle aged life, meditation, and mental illness.
Angel Olsen - "More Than This"
Post Malone - "In Bloom"
James Blake - "Atmosphere"
Plus the Two Awesome Tame Impala Covers:
Best Unsuspecting Jukebox: David Lynch’s Weather Report
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