WXPN Best of 2020: Songs - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Talk about the spectrum of emotion. These 30 songs, hand-picked by XPN’s on-air staff and online contributors to sum up the 2020 experience, range from minute-long punk blasts to eight-minute free-jazz-and-revolutionary-poetry epics. They’re songs about losing yourself in uncertainty, and being okay with that; about learning to navigate an unforgiving world; about falling in love, deeply; about exploding with rage and demanding a change.

These are not necessarily the songs we had in the heaviest rotation on our airwaves this year — and, full disclosure, I don’t think “WAP” has ever been played on XPN…but that doesn’t mean it’s not amazing. Some picks are deep tracks from favorite artists (Phoebe Bridgers’ stunner “I Know The End,” The Districts’ soaring “Velour and Velcro”), others are introductory selections from buzzing new artists (Oceanator’s “A Crack In The World,” Tiana Major9’s “Think About You”). Some are simply beautiful expanses to immerse yourself in (“Grand Canyon,” “Ocean City”) and many (“Shameika,” “Lost In Yesterday”) will be quite familiar to the dedicated XPN listener.

Buckle in and take a spin as we guide you across 30 songs in 120 minutes; read our takes on the music below, and to keep them in your own personal rotation, bookmark our Best Songs of 2020 playlists on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music. – John Vettese, editor, The Key

Algiers – “Dispossession” 

“Run around, run away from your America
While it burns in the streets
I been here, standing on top of the mountain
Shouting down what I see”

A fiery proclamation from a band who released the prescient album There is No Year. If something didn’t upset you in 2020, you weren’t really here, were you? – Stephen Kallao, World Cafe

Fiona Apple – “Shameika”

Fetch the Bolt Cutters arrived on April 17th, 2020, about a month after the coronavirus had officially upended our collective reality, and gave many of us the opportunity to share in something of a communal catharsis in the power of a masterpiece (and fifth studio album) by one of our greatest contemporary artists. Its rolling piano blistering over drums, handclaps and airhorns, “Shameika” sees Apple’s voice flowing between spoken word, quivering ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs,’ yelps and howls, and a deceptively soft-sung chorus about a childhood classmate (now known to be Virginia-based musician Shameika Stepney) and the power in lifting each other up, even in moments we may have thought fleeting or insignificant. Some seven months and hundreds of listens later, I still get chills every time the song hits the 1:30 mark. “Shameika” is beautiful. And ferocious. – Julian Booker, Sleepy Hollow

Phoebe Bridgers  – “I Know The End”

The powerful closing track off Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, “I Know The End” starts off like a classic Bridgers song: soft, quiet, hypnotic. And then, at around 2 minutes and 15 seconds in, this moment happens. A violin creeps up into the song, and it changes pace as if to signal “hold on, something intense is coming.” And then it does. The song begins a new chapter, the beat unfolding like a slow tornado of swirling strings, horns, and a call-to-arms that eventually engulfs you into its brilliant, powerful cacophony. – Bruce Warren, XPN Program Director

BUMPER – “You Can Get It”

The fusion of Japanese Breakfast’s pop sensibilities with the 64-bit punk of Crying created an exciting and unexpected EP from Michelle Zauner and Ryan Galloway, with “You Can Get It” sitting right at the top. The song checks every single box – chugging bass, twinkly synths, a guitar solo that reminds me of playing Flash games on that plastic, candy-colored iMac with the handle on the back, plus a hook I can never get enough of. – Sam Kesler, The Key XPN

Tre Burt – “Under the Devil’s Knee”

Folk musicians have been writing “protest songs” since the earliest recorded history of ballads. But where most contemporary artists stumble or fail, Tre Burt surges through to create something of enormous significance. It was upon returning from a rally in support of racial justice that Tre penned “Under the Devil’s Knee” in the lyrical prose styling of Woody Guthrie or Mississippi John Hurt, or any number of influencing folk pioneers who came before. With the help of his friends Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Sunny War, the four folk musicians of color recorded what will be a most enduring anthem of racial strife and the fight for justice. – Ian Zolitor, XPN Folk Show

Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion – “WAP”

“WAP” is bold.  “WAP” is brave.  “WAP” is beautiful.  “WAP” is ribald.  When it’s a been long winter’s night, and the sunset was at 5:30; when all you want is to curl up in to a ball because life has dealt you a hand, “WAP” will keep you warm, safe, and calm.  More than anything else “WAP” is raunchy, and we all love it, whether we admit it or not.  So, watch out! ‘Cause “WAP” is coming to save us all. – Matthew Shaver, The Key

Christine and the Queens – “People, I’ve Been Sad”

A word that has no English equivalent, the French noun “ennui” is defined as a specific feeling of weariness and boredom. It’s a feeling that was hard to describe until Christine & the Queens gave us “People, I’ve Been Sad” in February. It’s remarkable that the song that may best personify our current collective experience was released just *before* we’d begin our descent into the depths of 2020 together. You know that feeling you’ve had all year? “You know the feeling,” Chris insists. This song both IS that feeling, *and* the music therapy you need for it. – Kristen Kurtis, XPN Morning Show

Samantha Crain – “Pastime”

Over ten years and six albums, indie-folk singer-songwriter Samantha Crain has carved out a lane as a compelling voice with a compassionate perspective. On her latest record, this year’s A Small Death, it sounds at first like she’s elevated her game, but it was an awful lot of work getting there. A serious of automobile accidents took Crain out of the touring circuit for three years, and as she recovered from the physical and psychological trauma, she re-focused and really got to know her community of Norman, Oklahoma and her neighbors who live there. Built on a fervent rhythm, emphatic acoustic strums, and keyboard starbursts, the single “Pastime” could soundtrack a walk through your own hometown at sundown, and the moments you notice its subtleties that used to be invisible because they were always there. In a year when we’ve all been homebound and re-experiencing our personal worlds, It’s a soaring reflection on the things we take for granted, and a promise to be as present as possible. – John Vettese, The Key

Cub Sport – “Grand Canyon”

The last track on Cub Sport’s Like Nirvana recounts obstacles overcome by a couple truly in love with one another. Singer and songwriter, Tim Nelson tells their partner in both art and life, Sam Netterfield, to forget all of the people who were not there, all of the bad memories and just focus on the here and now. The song is meditative and peaceful, and counters the songs on Like Nirvana that describe the insecurities relationships can bring. Likening love to a massive and overwhelming gorge worn down by the elements but still impressive is a beautiful way to end an honest work by Cub Sport. – Maureen Walsh, The Key

The Districts – “Velour and Velcro”

The Districts’ show at Union Transfer back in March was my last real concert of 2020, and I think at the time I was in full denial. But — I’m glad to have gone out with You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere as a transition into quarantine. Nearly every track hits like an anthem, which up until then, gave me a ton of momentum and hope for how 2020 would feel. So in the same way that Pine Barons have defined “after,” The Districts inadvertently defined “before.” “Velour and Velcro” in particular has been a constant reminder that things will get better. The song has so much hope and energy and promise of something that it’s hard not to latch onto, especially right now.  – Emily Herbein, The Key

Fontaines D.C. – “A Hero’s Death”

This Dublin, Ireland band released their second album A Hero’s Death in the US this July.  Timing is everything, and the title track of this album definitely was just what we needed to hear. I was home recovering from surgery, and every time this song was played on XPN I turned it up…loudly…I needed to hear the music, and the mantra: “Life ain’t always empty / Don’t get stuck in the past / Say your favorite things at Mass / Tell your Mother that you love her / And go out of your way for others / Sit beneath a light that suits ya / And look forward to a brighter future.” – Helen Leicht, XPN Midday Show

Gunn-Truscinski Duo – “Ocean City”

You’re lying on your back as the ocean’s tide rolls in, immersing you in a comfortably cool mixture of water, foam and coarse sand. It’s only brief enough that’s there’s never a moment of where your next breath will come from. Underneath your body, the undertow is more massaging than it is pulling away the beach beneath. Actually, you’re just lying on your living room floor as Gunn-Truscinski Duo’s beautifully subdued, but never too subtle and extremely evocative Soundkeeper spins “Ocean City,” coming from stereo speakers on each side of you. – Brian Wilensky, The Key

Irreversible Entanglements – “No Más”

When the uprisings over the state murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Walter Wallace Jr, hit two blocks from my apartment on 52nd Street, when Mayor Kenny ushered in the feds to quell said uprisings, and police helped neighborhood thugs and racist proud boys patrol our streets to combat even peaceful protesters, these moments unfolded in my mind cinematically — they needed a soundtrack. Irreversible Entanglement’s “No Más” is just that, a song equally elegiac, wrapped in the gossamer beauty of its stark minimalism, as it (and its accompanying video) is incendiary. The 7:59 epic manages to capture the playful, arousing nature of avant garde jazz, as Luke Stewart’s bass, Keir Neuringer’s sax, Aquiles Navarro’s trumpet and Tcheser Holmes’s percussion provide the perfect sonic canvas for Moor Mother’s gentle admonishing: “No more will they divide and conquer”, she says, and as the horror, sadness, and palpable political murkiness of 2020 burns away, I believe her. – Alex Smith, The Key

Karina – “Teko”

While the entirety of Finnish duo Karina’s latest album, 2, carries a wide-eyed, freewheeling energy, “Teko” is the peak of their work thus far. Sung in Finnish, Karina’s “Teko” is, on the surface, entirely incomprehensible for the majority of English speaking listeners. Still, they communicate in the universal language of soaring guitar riffs, exuberant whoops, and pulse-pounding drums, a testament to the boundary-shattering power of music. – Kyle Whiting, The Key

Adrianne Lenker – “half return”

Adrianne Lenker’s new album songs brought me a heavy calm like nothing else I heard this fall, but the shortest and wackiest track, “half return,” brought me the most bliss. Among so many slow-turning dreams like “anything” and “zombie girl,” “half return” pushes a backbeat groove alone and awkwardly, like a wheelbarrow through mud. It’s not glamorous, but it can still be a total romp if you try hard enough to love it. “Standing in the yard, dressed like a kid, the house is white and the lawn is dead,” she rhymes again and again, and now I miss my kid friends more than ever. – Thomas Hagen, The Key

Lido Pimienta – “Nada”

Pain is not a new subject matter for songwriters. There’s no rulebook for how to write about pain, but even if there were, Lido Pimienta wouldn’t have a need for it. On her latest album, Miss Colombia, melds traditional instruments with digital experimentation into a dazzling foundation for her performance. Pimienta has described her shift to heavier electronic textures as a response to the limited time she can spend in the studio while raising two children. “Nada” is inspired by the traumatic birth of her youngest, as well as the anguish carried by women everywhere. Alongside Bomba Estéreo’s Liliana Saumet, Pimienta channels her anger into an energy that can (and will) topple mountains. – Eric Schuman, Indie Rock Hit Parade

Little Kid – “Losing”

The brainchild of canadian musician Keith Boothby, Little Kid have achieved their slow-burn success through a series of spell-binding home recordings, the kind that leads to a simmering cult following. Their newest record, Transfiguration Highway, marks their label debut, but loses none of the homespun charm. “Losing,” with its ramshackle, blue-sky piano, delicate vocals, and enigmatic sincerity is a perfect representation of Little Kid’s body of work. – Sean Fennell, The Key

Nada Surf – “So Much Love”

A writing challenge on stage leads to one of my favorite Nada Surf songs, reminiscent of New Order’s best work and a reminder there’s hope out there. – Stephen Kallao, World Cafe

Nas – “Spicy”

Some may argue that Nas was in his prime when he released Illmatic, regardless of what folks think, Nas, pushed through on his single “Spicy”. Joining him are two New York City princes of hip-hop A$AP Ferg and Fivio Foreign. Nas proves that he is capable of holding his own with the new school with his braggy and playful lyricism. Listen closely for a quadruple entendre referencing Nas’s silver screen release, “Belly”. – Melissa Simpson, The Key

noname – “Song 33”

noname’s “Song 33” is subtle, understated, and only 1:09 long — and it may be the most poignant and timely piece of music released in 2020. Written in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Oluwatoyin Salau, ”Song 33” takes aim at the twin evils of racism and patriarchy. Over a blissful Madlib instrumental, noname lifts up the names of the fallen while conjuring a wave of righteous anger like Christ casting out the wicked from the house of the lord. – John Morrison, Culture Cypher Radio

Oceanator – “A Crack In The World”

Brooklyn singer-songwriter Elise Okusami could not have been more direct. Things are broken, things have been broken for a long time. “There’s a crack in the world,” the Oceanator frontperson sings. “And we’re all hanging on, hanging on, trying not to fall through the void. But sometimes there’s only so much you can do.” That last phrase is key; “so much” does not equal “nothing,” and while Okusami acknowledges all the things in 21st century life that conspire to weigh heavy on our shoulders, she also doesn’t allow them to bring her down to the point of wallowing. It would be pretty hard to wallow with riffs like this, and as the indie-punk song races along, Okusami’s warm and comforting alto spends as much time reflecting on self-care, setting boundaries, and not losing your individuality in the fight. “I’ll keep trying to keep the skies blue anyway,” she sings, making it clear that “A Crack In The World” is the sound of irrepressible hope. – John Vettese, The Key

Frances Quinlan – “Now That I’m Back”

It is hard to believe it’s been almost a year since Frances Quinlan released Likewise, her first solo album in fifteen years. A standout track from the album is its second single “Now That I’m Back,” which takes listeners on a journey in just over three minutes, taking on an almost short-story like timeline. The song embodies a feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty which plagued so many of us this year with lyrics like “Voltaire’s severed head stared me back to bed, You’ve done your best all the way to the end.” Towards the end, the song breaks dramatically into a seriously danceable synth verse for something truly unique. – Rachel Del Sordo, The Key

Soccer Mommy – “Circle The Drain”

Full of nostalgia for 90s and early 2000s indie rock, Soccer Mommy’s “Circle The Drain” pointedly channels the emotion and grit of pop-rock stars like Liz Phair, Alanis Morissette, and Avril Lavigne. It’s successful experimental for songwriter Sophie Allison, and a standout track off her second LP Color Theory. Her soothing voice beautifully puts words to difficult feelings and emotions, emphasizing the complexities of internal battles and serving as a reminder that you don’t always owe reasoning for the way you feel. – Regina Schliep, The Key

Soul Glo – “29”

Listening to “29” from the new Soul Glo EP Songs to Yeet at the Sun you might be struck by a number of things: How does vocalist Pierce Jordan fit so many words into a minute and 15 seconds? How are there so many different parts to a song that’s this short? How is it so good?! Also, are those horns you’re hearing at the 0:50 mark? That’s important because I remember seeing pictures from the recording session and being confused where a horn section would fit in. But now it all makes sense, as much as anything with this long-running maverick punk/hardcore/hip hop band makes sense. “29” is an incredibly complex, interesting, and powerful song. – Yoni Kroll, The Key

Sylvan Esso – “Numb”

That feeling when a song explodes into life and you’re in the middle of it, that’s what happen when Nick Sanborn’s synths kick in. It’s a perfect builder. – Stephen Kallao, World Cafe

Tame Impala – “Lost In Yesterday”

There’s so much to love about Kevin Parker and the musical vision he’s created with Tame Impala.  A song like “Lost In Yesterday” beautifully showcases the hypnotic ambience that lures you in and the musical vibrancy that elevates your listening experience.  And as Parker explores the temptation of nostalgia on “Lost in Yesterday” his real guidance is to embrace progress and a positive outlook. – Mike Vasilikos, XPN New Music Show

Tiana Major9 – “Think About You (Notion Remix)”

I was randomly scrolling on Instagram the first time I heard “Think About You (Notion Remix)” by Tiana Major9, and since that random scroll I haven’t been able to stop listening.  The young UK songbird’s voice reminds me of Jazmine Sullivan and the song itself sounds like a little more of an upbeat version of Estelle’s “Come Over” featuring Sean Paul. “Think About You (Notion Remix)” is just one of those songs that you hear at a party that can make you want to dance with that person that has caught your eye all night. Sadly due to COVID-19 that hasn’t been able to happen this year, but when things get back to normal hopefully Tiana Major9’s “Think About You (Notion Remix)” will find its way into a DJs set. – Rahman Wortman, The Key

Adia Victoria – “South Gotta Change”

South Carolina native and current Nashvillean Adia Victoria has a complicated relationship with the Deep South. She confronts her mixed feelings on this year’s timely single “South Gotta Change,” which she says “is a prayer, an affirmation, and a battle cry all at once.” In the spirit of John Lewis ‘good trouble,’ she calls on younger generations to pick up the fight against the South’s centuries-long history of racism and injustice, and to love the South enough to do the hard work of changing it. – Sarah Hojsak, The Key

Kurt Vile and John Prine – “How Lucky”

Originally appearing on the album Pink Cadillac, “How Lucky” has been a favorite song of mine since I first heard John Prine do it circa 1980. In the years that followed, a Kurt Vile fan at one of his concerts said “You remind me of John Prine.” Kurt later went on to speak of Prine as “my hero.” When John and Kurt first did “How Lucky” at a New Year’s Eve performance at the Grand Ole Opry, Vile referred to it as “the single most special moment in my (musical) life.” Get ready to enjoy three-and-a-half minutes of clean acoustic Kurt Vile pickin’ and make-you-smile John Prine lyrics. – Chuck Elliot, Sleepy Hollow

The Weather Station – “Robber” 

The rich get richer. It’s a common saying, and one that’s held true this year as the wealth inequality gap continues to widen, and tensions continue to grow. Will it ever break? The cracks are showing, but will things actually change? The Weather Station captures that tension in “Robber”. Songwriter Tamara Lindeman examines her own relationship with the illusions of capitalism and the way we glamourize the very people who are profiting from the exploitation of resources we need if we hope to continue as a society. But while the track steadily builds to nearly overwhelming levels, there is hope represented by quick, glimmering saxophone runs, which suggest that, maybe, we could break the cycle. – Raina Douris, World Cafe

[full playlists]

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