5 Best Dance Songs 2020

In the horror that was 2020, we had to find escape in music. In dance. In letting the body move unfettered along with music that brought us back to an earlier time of our life, when we could go into the dance clubs and have a few drinks and dress in our velvet best.

A ton of great nostalgic, retro, dance music came out in 2020, music that harkened back to the disco sounds of late 70s and early 80s. Granted, this is the sound that I grew up with, so I’m more likely to gravitate to it, but its been a long time since I can recall so many fantastic dance albums that capture that long-ago spirit more than in 2020. Guess the year wasn’t all bad.

1. Dua Lipa – Levitating

I know Dua Lipa has gotten enough publicity, she doesn’t need more from me (not that this blog is any form of actual publicity), but sometimes the hype is deserved, and like Lizzo in 2019, 2020 was the year of Dua Lipa. I am not comparing the two artists other than to say that both albums are filled with some of the catchiest, smartly-arranged pop-dance songs of the year. I’ve listened to Levitating at least 50 times this year and have yet to get sick of it. It’s stripped-down, funky, with a booty-shaking bass-line, a chorus that is super sing-a-longy, and just makes me happy when it’s on, no matter how I was feeling prior.

2. Kylie Minogue – Supernova

I really have not cared one bit about Kylie Minogue before 2020. I probably had heard a few songs from her but I can’t name a single one. And then she puts out an album titled, Disco, and it’s pretty much exactly that. It takes the groove-oriented elements of 70s disco but places it in the early 80s more electronic dance world. There’s some nicely placed vocoder, some keyboards that might actually be keytar, lyrics that never delve deeper than “I can’t believe I love you like this,” and “tomorrow don’t matter,” and it couldn’t be more opposite of the energy and message that 2020 has been expressing all damn year. Which is exactly what makes it so needed.

3. Jessie Ware – Soul Control

On the heels of Kylie Minogue, Jessie Ware dropped another 1980s disco-dance album entitled, What’s Your Pleasure? And to write a sentence with the words 2020 and pleasure in it seems like an oxymoron. Ware’s album I would say is more mid-80s to late-80s dance, with a bit of Jody Watley or Jellybean Benitez. Very synthesized but with a thick groove, reminiscent of Giorgio Morodor in the production. This album isn’t as slick as Kylie’s Disco album, but the two of them channel that long-ago sound (of my youth) so well, I feel like I’m a teenager again.

4. Haiku Hands – Jupiter

Haiku Hands do dabble in the old-school dance sounds of the 80s, especially in the song “Jupiter,” but I hear a bit of Bananarama in their sound too. Where Bananarama were too cool for school, taking classic songs from the 50s and 60s and updating them for the 80s, Haiku Hands is more playful and silly. These Australian ladies do get a bit more modern (by modern, I mean then take their sound into the 90s and early aughts in terms of their techno-dance sound) on the collaboration with Sofi Tucker “Fashion Model Art,” which I almost chose here, but thought I’d keep it more retro. I laugh every time they sing out, “what do I do with my hands?” on that song. You know what? Fuck it. Here’s the video for that song, which I just think is exactly how this video should be.

5. Adam Lambert – Velvet

Yes, I did include an American Idol finalist in my list. For those not aware of the AI universe, you probably have heard of Adam Lambert, as he has filled in as the most recent vocalist for Queen, admirably taking on the iconic Freddie Mercury. It’s a thankless job, I am sure, but I can’t see anyone else pulling it off better than Adam. But after listening to his most recent solo album, Velvet, it is clear that Adam Lambert is a disco king deep down. It’s tough to get past his hair-style on this video, but the outfits and costumes in this video are fabulous and the song is super catchy and keeps the retro-70s/80s dance vibe of this list going strong to the end.

Top 6 Alt-Rock Songs with A Post-Punk Vibe

I know, that’s a lame description, but I am not sure how to tidily describe the following songs that wore down my digital turntable needle in 2020. Bands that tend to feature guitars, insistent grooves, a touch of Velvet Underground influence and a nice dollop of lyrical humor. Songs that aren’t going to lead to my wife asking me to turn the volume down a little bit. But my advice to you when playing the following songs — turn the volume up a bit! Just a bit though.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Cars In Space (Sideways to New Italy)

I think I learned of this Australian quintet from my buddy Jim Hoffmann way back when their first EP came out several years ago. I loved them immediately. They reminded me of The Feelies but with an early R.E.M. vibe. The melodies are super catchy and sunny. Sideways To New York would be the perfect album to put on when you’re driving down the coast or cross-country, and let your thoughts drift off into the clouds. That is, if we are ever able to do that again.

“Cars in Space,” is the song I chose here, and I do love the way the guitars swirl around in my body. In fact, it’s hard to type this while listening to it as my body keeps swaying around in my chair. This song definitely was in my top 10 most played in 2020 and the whole album will likely remain in high rotation in 2021.

Kiwi Jr. – Murder in the Cathedral (Football Money)

I was shocked to find out that Kiwi Jr. are from the Prince Edward Island area of eastern Canada and not Brooklyn, NY or San Francisco. They certainly dabble in the 90s-era slacker rock of bands like Pavement and later, Parquet Courts, but there’s something sweeter and nicer about them. So, I guess it does make sense that Kiwi Jr. is Canadian. Canadians are just nicer than Americans and Brits. I suppose I could have accepted that they’d be from New Zealand as well — the other country of nice-seeming people.

What can I say about their debut album, Football Money? I can say that when I put it on, I skip zero songs. It’s uniformly brilliant from beginning to end (though too short at 29 minutes). I bop my head around with a smile on my face on every song. And the lyrics are intelligible so you can sing along if you like. Like on the song “Gimme More,” you can join in with the lads as they sing, “gimme more gimme more more more,” and feel like you are a member of the band. Happily, they have a 2nd album coming out later this month, so it’s likely I’ll be posting about them again later in 2021.

Boat – To All The Sweaty People (Tread Lightly)

This song makes me miss seeing live music. It also makes me miss being young. When staying out late, getting drunk, heading to a club and dancing around to some high-energy band along with a crowd of other like-minded and sloshed folks seemed the epitome of a perfect night and not the sequence of unpleasant experiences it seems today. Yes, I am old. My bones break more easily now. The stench of unshowered young people is harder to block out. I start to fall asleep around 10pm. And there’s nowhere to park. But support your local music venues, cause they’re really hurting! Had to say that.

When I listen to Boat and especially this song, “To All The Sweaty People,” it takes me back to the mid-90s, when I was a newbie to San Francisco and would head over to Slim’s in the SOMA neighborhood and see whoever was playing. It was the heyday of bands like Pavement and Young Fresh Fellows, sloppy rockers, draped in flannel but not part of the grunge scene at all. They were too stoned and ironic for that. This Seattle quintet has been around for fifteen-ish years, so they wouldn’t have been around during that scene, but they more than capably have grabbed the torch from their forebears, who were my heroes at the time, and I thank them for making me feel young again.

Hockey Dad – In This State (Brain Candy)

Another band/duo that I discovered in 2020, thanks to Metacritic.com. This 2nd Australian entry on the list is further proof that the White Stripes had it right when they showed it only takes two to make a band. Guitars and drums and superb song-writing chops flow abundant across this entire album. Though bass has been overdubbed on the recording, if you see them live (I couldn’t find a live clip for this song, but check this out to see them live, without a bass) you will be amazed by the instinctive interplay of guitarist/vocalist Zach Stephenson and drummer/backing-vocalist Billy Fleming. If you know your alt-rock duos, I would say these guys musically, land somewhere between Japandroids and Jeff the Brotherhood. Oh, and I dunno if their name is a reference to the alt-rock darling Soccer Mommy, but I will choose to think it is for my own amusement.

Shopping – No Apologies (All Or Nothing)

I thought I’d include the live version of “No Apologies” instead of the studio one (which you can hear above if you have Spotify) as it shows how locked in this trio of UK musicians are when they play. The tempo is a bit slower than the album version but I love seeing how all three members sing, the way their voices overlap and intertwine and the clean sound where you can clearly hear the driving bass, angular guitars and tight-as-nails drums. I’ve loved Shopping ever since hearing them on an online mix back in 2015. Even though they are singing about some serious political issues, I can’t help but feel in a better mood after (and during) listening to them.

Ohmme – 3 2 4 3 (Fantasize Your Ghost)

When I first heard Ohmme’s 2020 album, Fantasize Your Ghost, it was a little after midnight, I was in my studio, quite stoned, doing some stretching. Thank goodness I was already on the ground, because 30 seconds into opening track, “Flood Your Gut,” I was floored. Who the hell was this Ohmme? I stood up, using all my strength against the power of this duo’s sound — alternately crunchingly loud and heavy and quiet and minimal — and researched them on the interwebs. Could this intricate, layered music be made by just two people? I thought the same thing with Hockey Dad, but with Ohmme, it definitely sounds like more than two musicians playing here. Perhaps there’s some overdubs or looping, but apparently it’s all played and sung by Chicago musicians Sima Cunnngham and Macie Stewart.

The title of this song, “3243,” refers to the time signature switches that are used. A total prog-rock move for sure, but they do it so effortlessly, all you can sense listening to it is that it sounds really off-kilter but unique and amazing. I tried to count the rhythms on a subsequent listen and my brains began to leak out my ears. So I don’t recommend you do that. Just appreciate this special duo/band that put out one of the best albums of 2020.

Top 5 Heavy Metal Albums of 2020

For my first post of 2021, I thought I’d look back about 35-45 years to a time when heavy metal hued closer to hard rock, when words like Black or Death were more likely to appear in a band’s name and not used to describe a subgenre of heavy metal. I will freely admit that I was a teenage headbanger. I had the requisite jean jacket adorned with pins of my favorite bands (Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Scorpions), the beginnings of a mustache I was convinced made me look “adult,” and the perfect mullet match.

Hard to believe, but some of those formative early metal bands were still putting out new music in 2020. As well as some other not quite so long-in-the-tooth bands, though clearly they were inspired by screaming guitar solos, catchy riffs and down and dirty anthemic fist-pumpers. 2020 certainly sucked, but classic metal would come to my rescue countless times when I just wanted to forget the pandemic, stomp my feet and swing my bald head around until I pulled a muscle and had to pop a flexeril.

1. AC/DC – Power Up

After the death of founding member and riff-master rhythm-guitarist Malcolm Young a couple years ago, it seemed like the death not just of a musical legend, but the death of a band that no one had expected to stick together (let alone survive) for more than 45 years. Yet, not only have AC/DC made it to year 46, but they put out perhaps their most inspired and memorable album since 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip. Power Up, like most every album before it, doesn’t stray from the formula. They still sing about girls, rock, the devil, and partying hard. Song titles such as: “Money Shot,” “Demon Fire,” and “Wild Reputation” are proof that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. No one comes to AC/DC hoping that they’ve finally added keyboards or are now tackling the political issues of the day. We come to AC/DC for Angus Young’s stick-in-the-craw guitar riffs. For Brian Johnston’s scratchy, screamy, yet somehow-in-tune vocals. For the metronomic grooves of drummer Phil Rudd. Power Up has all these elements, in spades.

2. Ozzy Osbourne – Ordinary Man

This was maybe a bigger surprise for me than AC/DC in 2020. I haven’t liked much of Ozzy’s album output since his early 80s heyday double shot of Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of A Madman. Single songs here and there I liked, but entire albums, not really. Heavy metal purists might have an issue with Ordinary Man, especially with its inclusion of a couple of duets with clearly non-metal vocalists. I’m referring to Elton John and Post Malone. On paper it sounds like it’d be awful. And a lot of the success throughout the album is due to the backing band of Chad Smith (drums) and Duff McKagan (bass; Guns n’ Roses) as well as the production, though the songwriting from beginning to end on Ordinary Man is uniformly excellent. Sure, the title track, with Sir Elton, is not really Metal, but as a metal ballad, it works just perfectly. And even if Ozzy’s vocals often sound like they’ve been “fixed up” in post to the ‘nth degree, it does still sound unmistakably like Ozzy. I would have included the title ballad here, but this is a heavy metal list, so I went with the more appropriate — and timely — “This is the End.”

3. Anvil – Legal at Last

If you haven’t seen the documentary “This is Anvil,” stop right here, go find it online and watch it. Anvil are Spinal Tap without the exploding drummers. Clearly, they are aware that they bask in all the heavy-metal clichés. You don’t put out an album (their 17th, 39 years after their debut) titled Legal At Last and not have a sense of humor about what you are sharing with the public. But their commitment to their musicianship and ear-splitting volume is unmatched. It makes sense that these guys are from Canada, the land of the funniest comedians on earth (similar to Spinal Tap, now that I think of it). Is Legal At Last better than their other albums? No, not really. Most of them are interchangeable, but in a year like 2020? It’s fucking great.

4. Testament – Titans of Creation

Testament had somehow never broken through my metal barriers until 2020. I’ve been aware of them, but never gave their albums much of a chance for some reason. I’ll explore those reasons in therapy, not here. They do have all the elements of Metal that I love; riffs galore, acrobatic, driving drums. Their sound hews closer to the speedy chug-a-chug of Metallica than the more dynamic, arena-rock of Iron Maiden. Maybe the less-melodic vibe of Testament is what had put them in the Megadeth category for me; bands I could respect but never could fully get into, then forgot about. “Dream Deceiver” breaks that impression for me. It’s super catchy, yet will still scare my parents. Wait, you mean I’m not a 15 year-old, pimply teenager anymore?

5. Primal Fear – Metal Commando

I can’t believe I never knew about Primal Fear until a month ago. I’ve really fallen off my metal throne. But thank goodness I found them, even if late in their career. Primal Fear are the babies of this list, having released their debut in 1998, but they’ve released 16 studio albums since then, the same number as AC/DC, so they might be the hardest working metal band in the business. If you are a fan of early 80s power-metal, such as Judas Priest or Scorpions, and have a sense of humor, you will love Primal Fear. They hit all the metal clichés with such abandon – the claps of thunder, church bells, the operatic, often-unnecessary screams, the references to the devil on seemingly every other sentence — that you have to admire their commitment to the genre’s hallmarks. My favorite here is in the video below, “Along Came the Devil,” which has the perfect sing-along chorus: “Along Came the Devil/ And he tried to break us/ And we stood ground/ Against his evil.” Try to listen to this and not think that the spirit of Spinal Tap lives on.

Fuzzy’s Top 100 Songs of 2020

I know flitting through these disorganized posts can be a chore, so here’s a simple one, that’s simply a list of my favorite songs from 2020, loosely assembled by genre, but hopefully with some semblance of flow — should you happen to have Spotify, a free 7 hours, and want to listen to these tunes.

The Return of the 80s Punk and New Wave Legends

The 80s are back! Don’t you say this every year? Yes, but this time I really mean it! That’s just because you’re a product of the 80s and are extremely biased. Yeah, so what’s your point? Opinions are biases by definition.

But I would venture to say that it’s not just me and my belief that the 1980s were the best musical decade in history. These five bands put out some of their best work ever in 2020. Bands like X and Psychedelic Furs hadn’t released new music in more than 25 years. So to not only defy expectations, rust and the aging process is a miracle unto itself. For X, it’s the first time the original quartet of Exene Cervanka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake have recorded new music since 1985! That they have recaptured the same rockabilly/punk spirit here on Alphabetland almost makes enduring the pandemic worth it. Almost.

1. X – Free (Alphabetland)

2. The Psychedelic Furs – Don’t Believe (Made of Rain)

Psychedelic Furs have somehow managed to capture their anthemic 80s new-wave sound while updating it with some more modern touches. It doesn’t feel like a band trying to cash in on nostalgia; it feels like a true band honoring the past while looking forward to the future.

The other three bands on this list are less a surprise than a welcome continuation of greatness. I’m talking about Wire, Pretenders and Bob Mould. Each of them have had their expected downturns — for me, the first decade of the 2000s didn’t reveal their most exciting or inspired work — but outside of small blips, all of them have been releasing excellent albums throughout their careers.

3. Bob Mould – American Crisis (Silver Age)

Bob Mould’s latest album, Blue Hearts, is merely the latest in a long line of five impassioned and essential records dating back to his 2012 release, Silver Age. It helps that his backing band, Jason Narducy on bass and Jon Wurster on drums, has been his reliable trio for longer than his legendary Hüsker Dü band mates, Grant Hart (drums/vocals) and Greg Norton (bass). On Blue Hearts, Mould is pissed off. Angry Bob Mould means the guitars will be loud and his iconic vocals will be raging. You’ll want to call up a lyric sheet to help clarify the words amidst the screams, but it’ll be worth it. This is definitely one of the essential soundtrack albums for 2020.

4. Wire – Be Like Them (Mind Hive)

Based on my Spotify end-of-year track counting, “Be Like Them” was #4 on my most played songs of 2020. Granted, their 2020 release, Mind Hive, came out in January, so it had a head start, but it also shows the lasting power of not just this song, but the entirety of Wire’s latest album. This song is the one that feels most indicative of their 80s minimalist sound, the angular guitars, the slightly-uncomfortable grooves. But the album as a whole is much more eclectic, dabbling in prog-rock and psychedelia. All of it works perfectly. Just like Bob Mould, Wire seems to be riding a sustained inspired streak, with Mind Hive just the latest of several excellent albums released in the past decade.

5. Pretenders – Hate For Sale (Hate For Sale)

I wrote about Pretenders a few days ago in an earlier post, but figured they deserved to be included here too. I so love the energy and drive that permeates all of Hate For Sale, it’s a spiritual sister album in a way with Lucinda Williams’ latest, Good Souls Better Angels. The title track is classic Pretenders, yet speaks to the current climate better than 99 percent of the protest songs that have come out this year. Hate has been a profitable business for as long as there’s been humans, but clearly we need to be reminded of this again and again. And who better to deliver that message to us than Chrissie Hynde.

Top 10 Country Songs of 2020

I, of course, use the genre “country” loosely. Several of these artists might lean more in a folk direction, or an R&B direction, or an americana direction. But all of them, to me, have a country-core, and even more true, have an undeniable musical core.

1. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – What’ve I Done To Help

Jason Isbell, the songwriter, tends to write in two modes, the poetic and the tell-it-like-it-is. On his best songs he does both. This one definitely leans in the tell-it-like-it-is direction, but has plenty of smart wordplay as well. “The world’s on fire and we just climb higher/’til we’re no longer bothered by the smoke and sound
Good people suffer and the heart gets tougher
/Nothing given, nothing found

Although I’m pretty sure he’s referring to the complacent, privileged white American, it’s non-specific enough to fit for any situation when a person feels separate (intentionally or unintentionally) from the suffering and pain other people face. Though he’s clearly talking about himself, and his own situation, the song can stand in for anyone whose idea of responding to injustice is to ignore it or to write an outraged post on Facebook or Twitter.

2. Lucinda Williams – Man Without a Soul

There’s no beating around the bush on this scathing track from the great Lucinda Williams. Though she never mentions “the man” by name, it’s pretty clear who she’s singing about. Her entire 2020 album, Good Souls Better Angels, exudes a defiant, angry stance, and the dirty blues that dominates feels like the perfect soundtrack for 2020.

3. Elizabeth Cook – These Days

There are certain artists that seem like they should be world-wide household names, their songs are so spot on and the emotion in their voices just oozes. Elizabeth Cook fits that description to a T. She’s got that classic, country-twang, a sort of Dolly Parton with more rasp. Her songs, especially on 2020’s Aftermath, are universally strong and emotionally honest and she’s always backed by a stellar band. Perhaps 2020 was going to be her year. Maybe 2021 will do just that.

4. Paul Cauthen – Freak

I never thought I’d crave that place where disco, Elvis Presley and honky-tonk merge. Yet, that’s exactly the intersection where Paul Cauthen lives. This version above is awesome, because we get to see the whole band playing here. But the recorded version is even funkier. His album, Room 41, is full of seedy, swampy, silly, sloppy songs that sound like country but then there’s a sax solo, or a hammond organ and wah-wah guitar and suddenly it turns into something you might hear in a disco. Right up my alley.

5. Margo Price – Stone Me

Margo Price’s 2020 album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, is her least country-sounding record yet. It sort of reminds me of Kacey Musgraves 2018 album, Golden Hour, which became more of a pop-rock sensation than a country chart hit. Price’s latest album sounds like a tasty blend of late-era Fleetwood Mac mixed with a cup an a half of Jenny Lewis, with a heaping tablespoon of Loretta Lynn. That’s not a knock. It took me a few listens to get past the slickness, but now I really appreciate the smooth production.

Note: while looking for the YouTube video for this song, I came upon this amazing acoustic take on the Megan Thee Stallion/Cardi B hit, “Wap.” Genius.

6. Honey Harper – The Day it Rained Forever

When I first heard Honey Harper’s Starmaker album, I was a bit confused. It had the melodies and twang of country, but both the vocals and instrumentation exuded a delicate, quiet vulnerability that reminded me of 1970s easy listening, or yacht rock. Throughout, there are swathes of swirly synths, vocoders, chimes, and other soft-rock touches, and then there’s Honey’s voice — which his first name perfectly describes. It’s got to be multi-tracked, as in most songs you can hear his deep baritone, while a layer of higher pitched vocals hovers over the top. It’s as if he’s dueting with himself. To take a line from his website, “Honey Harper is the cowboy angel making songs you never knew you wanted.”

7. Samantha Crain – High Horse

Samantha Crain has been putting out records for more than a decade. And listening back to some of her earlier cuts, I recognized many songs. Which leads me to believe that she’s been oh so close to making my best-of lists for many years. It’s a tough field to crack; there are a plethora of super-talented female singer-songwriters out there. But the first time I heard “High Horse” I knew this song would be on my end of year best list. The version above, with just Samantha’s mournful, soulful vocals and strummed acoustic guitar, is even more emotionally wrought than the album version which first sucked me in to its tale of sorrow and lost loves. She sings: “I know the shape of a great heartache/I know the weight of a big mistake/I know the sound of a warm crescendo falling away,” and you know she’s talking from a place a pain and wisdom.

8. Lily Hiatt – P-Town

Lilly Hiatt has been making top-notch americana records for long enough now to have stepped far out of the way of her famous father’s (John Hiatt) shadow. The most notable influence at this point is genre; Lilly’s songwriting and more rock ‘n roll approach are all her own here. She’s always been a savvy lyricist focusing mostly on her personal life, but her latest album, Walking Proof, has a maturity and an honesty that feels more wise, more accepting. “P-Town” is about Portland, Oregon and a bad experience she had there, but told from many years later, wondering why nostalgia can often grip a person so tightly.

9. Brothers Osborne – Skeletons

Before 2020 I had never heard of the Brothers Osborne. I had no idea they were a huge, stadium-level country band led by brothers John and T.J. Osborne. I read a review of their fourth album, Skeletons, and they compared it to ZZ Top meets Sturgill Simpson and I had to find out if they lived up to that hype. Yep. They did and then some. There are some bro-country elements on some songs, which I think feeds that arena sound, like on the album opener, “Lighten Up,” which is all about putting “your lighters in the air and light ’em up.” So they are certainly playing to the stadium crowd, but damn it if it doesn’t work. The guitar playing is stellar, and several songs get extended, shredding guitar solos. “Skeletons,” the title track, is my favorite here, conjuring up images of 70s-80s southern rock, ala Lynyrd Skynyrd, but with a distinctive soul element mixed in. But, really, every song here is an instant classic. “Back on the Bottle” is honky tonk perfection. Me likey.

10. Bobby Bare – Red-Neck Hippie Romance (Live)

I had the good fortune of seeing Bobby Bare perform in concert a few years ago, in a tiny club in San Francisco along with his son, Bobby Bare, Jr., and it was an amazing, unforgettable show, though nothing like how the crowd sounds on his recently-released-after-sitting-in-the-vaults live album from 1978, Great American Saturday Night. The crowd sounds drunk and rowdy and the mix sounds like it was recorded from the back of the club, which makes it more life-like than the professionally recorded live albums that never can capture the true audience experience. Bobby Bare is one of a handful of country legends, and this recording shows him at the height of his craft, though to tell you the truth, after having seen him live at the age of 81, I think his entire career has been a height. Though I sure would have loved to have seen him in concert on this tour, even if I was only eleven at the time.

Top 5 Cover Songs of 2020

Everyone has a favorite cover song. Mine is probably Devo’s version of “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” by the Rolling Stones, though ask me tomorrow and I may have a different answer. Most every musician has performed and/or recorded a cover version of something that resonated deeply with them or that they particularly loved growing up.

The covers album, on the other hand, once a staple for crooners like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett fell out of favor in recent decades perhaps due to licensing costs or a desire to create one’s own original music. Though a few minutes perusing the exhaustively researched website, Covermesongs.com, will reveal that cover albums — entire albums where a single band or artist covers only songs written by single artist, or perhaps covering a single album, song for song — have been making a comeback. In just the last couple years, the renowned alt-rocker, Julianna Hatfield, has released tribute albums, one featuring the songs of Olivia Newton John (Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John) and the other a minimalist take on the hits of The Police (Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police).

Bands like The Flaming Lips have become fairly well-known for taking iconic albums (Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon for example) and running them through their psychedelic, drug-laced music machines and spitting out something intriguingly inspired but often unrecognizable to the original.

Of course, what has been a more common covers experience, album-wise, is the Tribute album, where each song has been recorded by a different artist. One of the best examples of this is the 1994 Carpenter’s Tribute, If I Were A Carpenter. But, sadly, most attempts like this are often misguided, wildly hit-and-miss, and pale in comparison to the originals.

Thankfully, in 2020, there are many examples of tribute and cover albums that pulled off the rare feat of honoring the original source material while at the same time reimagining these songs in new ways, opening up to the listener new and exciting pathways to a beloved tune.

In 2020, the best of these happened to be recorded by women.

I tried to keep the song choices relevant to the mood and vibe of this tumultuous year.

1. Bettye LaVette – Book of Lies (Ruth Brown)

Bettye LaVette is the elder stateswoman on this list and the measuring stick for anyone looking to study how to reinterpret another artist’s work. Since her breakthrough 2005 album, My Own Hell To Raise, LaVette has only recorded covers albums. Maybe she would use a different word, like tribute or interpretation, and some of her releases are thematically linked, such as her 2010 take on the British Rock Songbook and 2018’s all-Dylan tribute, Things Have Changed. Her latest album, Blackbirds, features songs by Black women singers and songwriters that have altered the musical landscape over the past 70 years. On “Book of Lies,” originally recorded by Ruth Brown, the pioneering Jazz and R&B artist from the 1950s and 60s, LaVette transforms the lush, jazzy original into a gritty, rhythm and blues classic that sounds like it could have been a hit for the Stax label in the early 70s.

2. Joan As Police Woman/Meshell Ndegeocello – Life’s What You Make It (Talk Talk)

Talk Talk purists aren’t going to like this choice, I would bet. Or maybe they will. What do I know. While I do love the original version, it doesn’t groove as heavy as this take, with Meshell Ndegeocello’s deep, funky bass-line the centerpiece of the song. Also, having both Joan and Meshell duet on vocals really works for me here. The plaintive emotional quality of Mark Hollis’ reedy voice on the 1985 original from Talk Talk’s great The Colour of Spring album gets a slicker treatment here, but it somehow still sounds like it was recorded in the 80s. This version is sexy, and I could see it fitting in just fine on Roxy Music’s bedroom classic, Avalon, if Bryan Ferry had chosen to cover this one for that album.

3. Kesha – Children of the Revolution (T Rex)

This is an example of an excellent cover song on an otherwise inconsistent and lackluster tribute album. Very few of the other covers on AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex do anything interesting with Bolan’s laconic, glam originals. The album does start off strong though, with Kesha’s rather straightforward, but muscular take on the classic “Childen of the Revolution.” Kesha’s gritty, growly vocal tone and the kick ass horn section along with some pounding percussion bring enough modern touches to bring this cover to the top picks of the year.

4. Larkin Poe – Rockin’ in the Free World (Neil Young)

I’m not usually a big fan of the folky duet sound. I think this has to do with a presumed earnestness and lack of intensity in most soft-rock singer-songwriter stuff. Larkin Poe do sometimes lean in this less-than-desired direction, but what keeps me listening are sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell’s impeccable musicianship (Rebecca is an excellent guitarist and mandolinist and Megan plays a mean pedal steel) and lovely harmonies. They tackle a Neil Young classic here, “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World,” which seems a perfect song to play in a year like this.

5. Unwoman – Every Day is Exactly the Same (Nine Inch Nails)

I discovered Unwoman earlier this year while listening to the coverville.com podcast. It’s a great companion to covermesongs.com. Each of the more than 1300 episodes digs deep into the cover song archives to reveal a ton of rare versions of your favorite tunes. Unwoman is a cellist who is able, often with just her voice and her cello, to pull off some uniquely arranged covers. This take on the Nine Inch Nails dirge, “Every Day is Exactly The Same,” maintains the original’s dark and heavy mood, while scaling it all back, adding some violins to her cello to add some well-placed ominous tones, especially in the chorus. This song, though clearly about depression, seems a fitting cover to tackle in these pandemic days, which blend into one other, making them seem exactly the same.

Top 6 Superannuitant Songs of 2020

I originally wrote “Top 6 Old Fogey Songs of 2020” but then I pulled out my trusty thesaurus and it had superannuitant as an option and I had never heard of this word, but I loved the sound of it. I double checked to make sure it didn’t have an alternate definition that may have misled you, my trusted reader. I feared it also meant “someone who has a lot of money invested in annuities,” but the main uses seem to align with “old” or “aged.”

So it seemed a pretty fitting word to put on these rock and roll veterans/legends, who, many decades beyond their critical peaks, have released music in 2020 that stands up to — hell, crushes beneath the heels of their geriatric insoles — the stuff most new artists have put out this year.

Only one song here is cheating, but when you’re the Rolling Stones, you get a pass when a previously unreleased song, “Scarlet,” recorded in 1974, is brought to the public for the first time. Even, if this tune didn’t have Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page on guitar, this song would make my list. His playing is not in the foreground of the mix as far as I can tell, as most of the riffs sound like Richards’ terrain. But I’m not here to dissect this song, I’m here to praise its welcome appearance during a shit-tastic year.

ROLLING STONES – SCARLET (Goats Head Soup 2020 rerelease)

BOB DYLAN – FALSE PROPHET (Rough and Rowdy Ways)

Bob Dylan, who I think is older than Keith Richards (yep, 79 to KR’s 77), has put out perhaps the most critically acclaimed album of the year. That’s no small feat. (Though I would not put the album on my best of list, several of Rough and Rowdy Ways’ tunes — the bluesier ones, especially “False Prophet” — are excellent)

ELVIS COSTELLO – NO FLAG (Hey Clockface)

Elvis Costello has been on a bit of a hot streak lately. I had his 2018 release, Look Now, in my top ten albums of that year. And it’s been a decade since he’s put out anything that didn’t resonate with me. I wish I could say Hey Clockface is the equal to Look Now — it’s too scattershot for my ears and the melodies are harder to find on this one — but like Dylan’s latest, there are enough tasty nuggets to keep a superannuitant like me happy. “No Flag” has more attitude and sneery, pissed-off verve than anything Elvis has put out in decades. It’s political without being tied to era specifics and the reverb-heavy mix adds a further layer of menace. “No time for this kind of love/No flag waving high above,” Costello sings. “No sign for the dark place that I live/No God for the damn that I don’t give.”

BLUE OYSTER CULT – THAT WAS ME (The Symbol Remains)

I got to see one of my all-time favorite bands in concert a couple summer’s ago. Yes, it was at the Alameda County Fair, where the smell of deep-fried butter and cheap beer no longer held the same reverence that they once did, but Blue Oyster Cult still rocked the hell out of the makeshift arena. Even if the incomparable E. (Eric) Bloom no longer had the vocal range he once did, guitarist Buck Dharma’s pipes were as capable as ever, along with nailing all his blistering guitar solos. I had no illusions that BOC would ever put out original music ever again, and part of me almost hoped they wouldn’t. When I heard they were releasing a new album in 2020, titled The Symbol Remains, I was reticent to play it. I didn’t want it taint my nostalgic love for them. Then I read a super-positive review on a site I respect (can’t remember which) and decided to give it a shot. “That Was Me,” the opening track, rocks super hard, and E. Bloom’s vocals more than hold up here. Sure, the studio likely helped out, but this one sounds like classic BOC. The whole album isn’t as solid as this song, but it’s still plenty good and probably my biggest surprise release from the dinosaur sect in 2020.

MORRISSEY – BOBBY DON’T YOU THINK THEY KNOW (I Am Not a Dog on a Chain)

Morrissey is the baby of this bunch, and I mean that in all the definitions. Whining has been a Morrissey trademark since the very first Smiths album in 1984. It’s one of the reasons I/we fell in love with him. We didn’t listen to The Smiths or any of Morrissey’s dozen or so solo albums because we wanted to share a cozy candlelit meal with him; his controversial behaviors and political comments are all part of the deal.

Now, with “Bobby, Don’t You Think They Know?” we can add soulful to the list of adjectives used to describe Morrissey. Dueting with Motown legend Thelma Houston, this ode to a man hiding his sexuality, (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what it’s about) “Aren’t you tired of pretending?/I know, your torture below/Aren’t you tired of pretending?/I know, your torture down below” is truly epic. I love the way Thelma pretty much takes the song over about half way through, it adds a bit of tension along with the super tasty horn section.

PRETENDERS – I DIDN’T KNOW WHEN TO STOP (Hate for Sale)

I can’t leave the women off this list. Pretenders never had broken up, mainly because the “band” is essentially Chrissie Hynde and whoever she wants to play with. Pretenders’ long-time drummer Martin Chambers is back hitting the skins here, having been MIA from Pretenders releases for almost 18 years. To me, although I have found something to like on every Pretenders record, this one has an urgency and punk spirit that have been missing since her/their 80s output. “I Didn’t Know When To Stop” seems to be about Chrissie (or a narrator) painting a portrait of an ex, “I didn’t know when the paint would dry/Kept goin’ back for another try/I start at the bottom, I dig at the top/I didn’t know when to stop.” But it seems to be a metaphor for staying in a relationship longer than desired. Whatever it’s about, it’s a kick-ass song, one I wish was longer than its brisk two and half minutes. I guess Chrissie seemed to know when to stop on this song.


Top 5 Hard Rock Songs – 2020

Defining hard rock, like most genres, is subjective, and I hate to put such labels on the bands and artists I love and enjoy sharing with others. But I admit it does help me organize my thoughts around what music impacted me in 2020. So, I’ll just say that for me, hard rock is rock n’ roll with a gritty, grimy edge: melodic, but riff-heavy and a bit dangerous. It’s not as frenetic or abrasive as heavy metal, but it can be just as loud. There is definitely a bluesy core to it with touches of psychedelia, punk-rock and rockabilly.

  1. Local H – High, Wide and StupiD

The elders on the list, Local H have been around a quarter century, yet I will admit I know very little about them. “High, Wide and Stupid,” from their 11th album, Lifers, is one of 11 fuzzed-out, dirty, rockin’ tunes. Legendary producer Steve Albini (pretty much every important band), brings an in-your-face urgency to every cut. This isn’t a simple, riff-rock band, there’s an impressive range of sounds on this album, all played with a punk-rock ferocity.

2. SUPERSUCKERS – GETTIN’ INTO EACH OTHER’S PANTS

Supersuckers are little bit George Thorogood, a little Reverend Horton Heat, and a lot of hard-livin’ bluesy rock and roll. Their 13th album, aptly titled Play That Rock N’ Roll, has no less than three songs with the words “Rock and Roll” in the title. “Dead, Jail or Rock N’ Roll” is my favorite of the three. But I didn’t want to pick a cover here (original by Michael Monroe), so I’m gonna go with the more lascivious, “Gettin’ Into Each Other’s Pants.” I lied when I said that Local H were the elder statesmen on this list. Supersuckers have been around 29 years. Proof that some bands age like fine bourbon.

3. Giant Eagles – Southbound

Candidate for album of the year for me. Giant Eagles’s hook-laden second album, Second Landing, is easily the most played album of 2020 for me. I really could have gone with any song on this tight, 32 minute, 12 track album. They wear their Ramones influence on their sleeves, pants and every other clothing item, but with less menace, more goofiness and a fair bit of synthesizers. These Dutch rockers may lack originality, but what they accomplish is even more impressive; bringing a sense of nostalgic punk energy without ever sounding like a retread. If you like “Southbound,” I highly recommend you get this entire album.

4. Datura4 – West Coast Highway Cosmic

Australian veteran rockers who I hadn’t heard before their 2020 release, West Coast Highway Cosmic, have been around for a lot longer than the 6 years and 4 albums as Datura4. I can’t say I know any of the dozen bands the members have been in previous to Datura4, but from what I can tell, they are well known down under. I love their groovy, psychedelic sound, perfectly expressed in this self-titled track.

5. Corey Taylor – Highway 666

Corey Taylor apparently is a rock star. As the lead singer of new-metal band Slipknot for the past couple decades (a band I could never get into), he has also collaborated with dozens of artists and bands (Korn, Anthrax, Code Orange to name three) and even has done some acting. He’s a renaissance man, you could say. I want to hate the guy, cause I’m insecure and can’t handle super successful, talented people, but goddamn if his 2020 album, CMFT (Corey Mother Fucking Taylor is what it stands for), isn’t a super rockin’, grimy hard rock classic. Listen to “Highway 666” and you’ll be suckered into his web, too.

Best Song 2020: Jarv Is – House Music All Night Long

Jarvis Cocker is/was the lead singer of Pulp, the pioneering Brit-Pop band from the 80s and 90s. I will admit that I don’t know much about Pulp or Jarvis Cocker other than that I liked much of Pulp’s music, but there were other Brit-Pop bands I liked more and so more or less ignored them. Jarvis Cocker has always liked to push people’s buttons. To come across as difficult and maybe standoffish. It’s his often hilarious antics and statements to the press (and in his music) that I always appreciate, more so now than ever before.

His newest album, …Beyond the Pale, to my ears, feels like classic Cocker. There are touches of Bowie here, as to be expected, and lyrical wordplay with a lot of wit and substance, such as on another favorite on the album, “Swanky Modes.”

I can resist gentrification
But I cannot resist temptation
You’re carrying a basket when I next caught your eye
A glint behind the clutter of a shop-soiled life
Surely you could miss your appointment
I’ll try not to be one more disappointment

I think he called himself Jarv Is because it was supposed to be a live album or something and then he wasn’t happy with the recordings and so went back and reworked them so that they are more studio compositions. I can’t tell any of that from listening to this. I just hear fun, clever songs, with unique arrangements, smart, snarky lyrics and a sound that feels fresh even as it echoes back to older Pulp sounds.

My favorite of Beyond The Pale’s 7 songs is the lethargic dance tune, “House Music All Night Long.” It’s got some house-like synths that propel the song forward, but it’s sort of wistful at the same time. It’s got a cool groove, but I’m not sure it’s gonna set the club on fire. It’s very hypnotic and the background vocals really give it just the right touch. Here he references George Clinton and Funkadelic, adding in his patented creepy/sexy vibe.

Saturday night, cabin fever in house nation
This is one nation under a roof
Ain’t that the truth?
Goddamn this claustrophobia
‘Cause I should be disrobing ya

I found myself dancing in my chair as I wrote this, swaying my head and shoulders to and fro, similar to the dancers in the video but maybe a little bit faster. If I had the right drugs, I could see getting up and moving my whole body to it, all night long.