Welcome to the top 40! The cream is really rising to the top here. Remember, catching up on the list thus far is as easy as one, two, three! With that out of the way, let’s do it to it.
40. Ashley McBryde – Never Will
Consider the title track as a statement piece. One could certainly do this across both of Ashley McBryde’s major-label LPs – and, by proxy, link “Never Will” as a spiritual successor to the modern Opry classic “Girl Goin’ Nowhere.” Much like “Girl,” McBryde once again goes toe-to-toe with those who doubted her. Rather than not believing she’d make it, however, this time they’re saying the good times won’t last. It’s louder and more defiant this time around, backed with rousing electric guitars and a mantra that could reflect McBryde’s entire career: “I didn’t/I don’t/I never will.” Country’s realest, freshest voice.
39. Caligula’s Horse – Autumn
Rise Radiant, the fifth studio album from Caligula’s Horse, is replete with bombast and layered instrumentation, itself zigging when you expect a zag and vice versa. There’s something to be said, then, for a song like “Autumn.” Rather than immediately throwing listeners to the wolves, it gently fades in on a lone acoustic guitar and the subdued, tender vocals of frontman Jim Grey. The prog-rock grandiosity eventuates, yes – there’s a bass solo that leads into a guitar solo – but “Autumn” succeeds primarily as a daring venture for a band that could easily but unfairly be dismissed as by-the-numbers.
38. Baby Beef – Sticking Around
A Layman’s introduction to Baby Beef: Imagine Matt Berninger fronting the Pet Shop Boys. Both the same baritone and quizzical lyrical nature follow, matched with synths and programming that are pure, unabashed kitsch. Still, that’s just a starting point. As a song like “Sticking Around” proves, there’s more to the Beef than meets the eye. All three vocalists create standout moments for themselves, while the spaghetti-western guitar adds an unexpected twang to the otherwise glacial synth-pop. There’s no-one currently on the Australian circuit quite like them – and songs like this, fitting to its title, attest to their staying power.
37. Polaris – Vagabond
Although they didn’t get much of a chance to celebrate it, Polaris ascended to the top of the foodchain in Australian heavy music in 2020. The Death of Me not only cleared the bar set by their impressive 2017 debut The Mortal Coil, it set a new benchmark for their contemporaries entirely. We listen now to the album’s centrepiece, wholly exemplary of this fresh standard. If you’re not coming to the dance with riffs that bounce as hard, drums that slam as aggressively and hooks that feel as all-encompassing as “Vagabond,” ask yourself: What the hell are you doing here?
36. ONEFOUR – Welcome to Prison
Of course, one can’t document the rise of Western Sydney’s ONEFOUR without also addressing the ever-present elephant in the room. A Rooty Hill incident landed key members of the group in jail, leaving only two on the outside to keep the name alive. To their credit, ONEFOUR have done a fantastic job of this – not least of all for keeping shit very, very real in their lyrical content. “Welcome to Prison,” as its name suggests, hits even harder than something like “In the Beginning” purely for how much heart, honesty and introspection lies within it. They remain Sydney’s realest.
35. Ty Dolla $ign feat. Kanye West, FKA twigs and Skrillex – Ego Death
Was there a greater example of ego death in 2020 than Ty Dolla $ign releasing a song named after it from an album titled Featuring Ty Dolla $ign? Ty always plays John C. Reilly to countless artists’ Will Ferrell. “Ego Death,” then, might be his Walk Hard. It’s still flanked by others’ star power (including Kanye’s best verse in years), but also serves as a showcase of an underrated leading man. This also wasn’t a hit, but give it time and it has every chance of attaining cult-classic status. Rightfully so, too. It’s the soundtrack to a thousand boogie nights.
34. 5 Seconds of Summer – Wildflower
Is there anything more fun than cosplaying decades you weren’t around for? 5SOS – who were all born in the mid-90s – finally get to indulge on a full-blown 80s moment on “Wildflower.” It honestly makes you wonder why they hadn’t gone for it sooner. Those synth stabs! That squeaky-clean guitar! The wallop of the gated snare! Take a dash of solo Phil Collins, add a splash of solo Peter Gabriel, and you’ve got the genesis of “Wildflower.” Maybe a pinch of Talking Heads, too – ’tis the season, after all. As comforting as a pair of giant shoulder pads.
33. Waxahatchee – Fire
It’s always been easy to feel what Katie Crutchfield is singing. She’s always possessed a raw, soulful voice within the indie-rock spectrum that has housed moments of vital vulnerability across her five albums as Waxahatchee. What “Fire” does is make you see what she’s singing. “West Memphis is on fire/In the light of day.” You can see the horizon, the smoke, the terror and the beauty in a moment like that. A bittersweet countryside journey, laden with impeccable harmony and bold structure. “Fire” encapsulates one of the most compelling pieces of songwriting yet in a career defined entirely by them.
32. Something for Kate – Supercomputer
At a time when many of their contemporaries have resigned themselves to the nostalgia circuit and Days On The Green, Something for Kate deserve to be commended for existing in the present tense alone. Even if their new stuff wasn’t up to scratch, at least they were still making it. That’s what makes songs like “Supercomputer” all the more defiant and baffling: Something for Kate are still making some of the best music they’ve ever written. Paul Dempsey’s ongoing sci-fi dalliance continues in a blaze of orbiting synths, pounding toms, rousing na-na-nas and a fiery guitar outro. No nostalgia necessary.
31. Nothing Really – Yuck
“Do you think I’m yuck?” Vic Austin’s voice cracks into a higher register as she asks the song’s titular question. “I adore you,” it adds. Perhaps a separate point, but perhaps the two are wholly intertwined. Like Roger Sanchez’s tragic “Another Chance” video, Austin and her Nothing Really cohorts begin the song with a full, giant heart that is eventually shriveled and shrunken by the cruel nature of the outside world. It’s vital, purposeful indie rock – the kind one loses themselves in for days on end, hooked on a feeling. There’s never an answer given, but silence speaks volumes.
30. Genesis Owusu – Whip Cracker
Much like “This is America” before it, much of “Whip Cracker”’s power lies within its visual accompaniment. Kofi Owusu-Ansah stares directly down the camera barrel, shot in black-and-white as he unflinchingly calls out his targets. By the time the video bursts into colour, blood is dripping from his mouth. It’s one of the year’s most perfect videos for what ended up being one of its hardest-hitting songs. Owusu’s acidic bile is egged on by thudding drums, which turn on a dime into a dance-punk apocalypse around the song’s halfway point. It’s complex by nature; unrelenting in execution. Whip it good.
29. Run the Jewels feat. Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha – JU$T
When the tracklist for RTJ4 preempted its release, one particular odd-couple feature pairing raised eyebrows – and, believe it or not, it wasn‘t Josh Homme and Mavis Staples. Of course, Run the Jewels had history with Zack de la Rocha – but what of Pharrell, whose happy (pun intended) disposition felt immediately at odds with the harsh reality of RTJ? As it turns out, this fab four complement one another perfectly. It’s all there: Williams’ syncopated hook, El-P’s rubbery beat clatter and prolix wordplay, Mike’s effortless verse, de la Rocha’s scene-stealing finale. “JU$T” is a legend convention meets social revolution.
28. Tame Impala – Lost in Yesterday
One of the more interesting musical elements at play on the last two Tame Impala records has been the lessened emphasis on guitar. What happens when you remove such a key element from what is, for all intents and purposes, a rock band? You get in the groove. “Lost in Yesterday,” tellingly, sports the best Impala bassline since “The Less I Know the Better.” A bustling drum shuffle – equal parts “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “The Moment” – muscles in, while an aviary of synth squalls colour in atop of the rhythm. Reinvention never felt so revolutionary.
27. Miiesha – Twisting Words
The title of Miiesha’s debut Nyaaringu stems from her native Pitjantjatjara. It translates to “what happened,” and the Queensland singer is true to it across inter-generational storytelling and heartfelt odes to her past, present and future. “Twisting Words” shows us what happened when Miiesha was underestimated, overlooked and spoken over. Spoiler alert: It made her mad as hell, and she’s not gonna take it anymore. She’s flanked by a pristine neo-soul arrangement, which builds from a warm bed of keyboards to a righteous guitar solo. It feels real, and it feels right. Believe the hype: Miiesha is the total package.
26. Gordi – Extraordinary Life
Three years removed from jaw-dropping debut Reservoir, Gordi found herself adapting and evolving. Not only was she musically recalibrating following her first album’s kitchen-sink maximalism, she was simultaneously experiencing loss in tandem with new love. With this, consider “Extraordinary Life” the centrepiece of Our Two Skins. It’s a resolute piece of folktronica that doesn’t shy away from matters of the heart. In fact, it thrives upon them. It comes from a place of open sentiment and quiet desperation, with the kind of emotion that lingers long after the final chord rings out. It’s vintage Gordi, but simultaneously brand-new. It’s extraordinary.
25. Pearl Jam – Dance of the Clairvoyants
So much got forgotten from the first quarter of 2020, their existence alone may shock you. Case in point: You forgot Pearl Jam put out a record, didn’t you. You also forgot that the lead single was a massive gamble – a new-wave, post-punk hybrid; hardly recognisable when put next to “Alive” or “Jeremy.” Here’s the best-kept secret of all: “Dance of the Clairvoyants” is the best Pearl Jam single since at least “The Fixer,” maybe even “Do the Evolution.” It’s a strutting, positively Byrne-ian musical revelation. A Pearl Jam song like this only comes around once in a lifetime.
24. Miel – I’ll Be Holding
The cover of Miel’s debut album Tourist Season sees her leaning back, eyes closed and mouth agape. It’s part daydream, part free-fall. Such a tableau feels pertinent to the sensations caused by its second single, “I’ll Be Holding.” It’s a rush of wind to the face as the city flies by in a flash, internalising a complex situation in the medium of retro-tinged dream-folk. It’s a moment to get lost in, throwing your body into an arm-flailing tube-man trance. “I’ll Be Holding” is the sound of dancing like no-one’s watching, and lord knows that kind of release was needed here.
23. The Chicks – Julianna Calm Down
For 20-plus years, the Chicks had the loudest voices in the room and knew how to use them. They called out from wide open spaces, killed Earl and refused to make nice. They took it to 11 and never turned down… until now. “Julianna Calm Down” brings the trio into close quarters with their nearest and dearest. They get real for a moment, showing a side they’ve never quite shown before. It’s the kind of tenderness that can only come from three loving mothers, passed on with the kind of wisdom that can only come with knowing each other mile-long.
22. Tigers Jaw – Warn Me
When Tigers Jaw shared their first new music of 2020, it was with a caveat: This won’t be on the album. There was one coming (still is), but you wouldn’t find “Warn Me” on it. This is a good thing, in hindsight – insofar as that you can appreciate “Warn Me” strictly on standalone merits. There’s plenty of those, too: Teddy Roberts’ double-kick thrash injects new life behind the kit, while Ben Walsh’s double-whammy of a wordless pre-chorus and a howled hook is testament to his songwriting skills. When they put their minds to it, Tigers Jaw are practically peerless.
21. Something for Kate – Waste Our Breath
Paul Dempsey claims that “Waste Our Breath” is about “trying to find an empty space.” He’s right, of course – it’s his song, after all – but perhaps the best thing about Something for Kate is that they’ve always left things open for interpretation. Whatever you hear is right too. The song’s “checkpoint on the shortest day of the year” could mean everything and nothing. “This show”? What show? Your call. It’s futile and fascinating, powered by Dempsey’s towering presence and the resilience of his long-serving rhythm section. Fill this empty space however you see fit. It’s yours now, people.
Have a listen to all 80(!) of the songs on the list so far, in order, via Spotify below:
Check back soon for the final installment! 2020’s almost done, thank the lord.