We move now, at long last, to put the lid on 2020 with the 20 best songs of the year. A warning that there’s a lot to say about the top 10, so only stick around if you’re feeling adventurous.
Parts one, two, three and four are here, here, here and here respectively.
Let’s fucking do this.
20. Fontaines D.C. – Televised Mind
When they were first making noise, the most common term for Fontaines D.C. was “post-punk.” It made perfect sense circa Dogrel – after all, it was all we had to go off. What if, however, Dogrel was a punk record… and A Hero’s Death was the real post-punk record? The churning bass, the Madchester big-beat drums and the surf-nightmare baritone guitar on “Televised Mind” is like night and day when paired next to, say, “Boys in the Better Land.” It’s an evolution; a primordial and powerful progression. Whatever it is, it’s post-something. They’ve once again gotten ahead of the game.
19. Gorillaz feat. Peter Hook and Georgia – Aries
“Aries:” the best Gorillaz single since “DoYaThing,” and also the best New Order song since “Crystal.” While the band’s previous collab-heavy project Humanz felt like too many cooks, Song Machine saw the fictitious troupe get the balance just right. Case in point: the legendary Peter Hook pulls out a classic high-fret bassline for 2D’s weary, emotive vocal. Meanwhile, electronica upstart Georgia patterns a V-drums undercurrent that drives it along before literally bursting into high tide (what a chorus, while we’re at it). This team-up may seem like a bizarre love triangle, but in execution “Aries” was written in the stars.
18. The 1975 – If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)
The role “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” plays shifted significantly. Its initial April release was a final burst of hype for the band’s Notes on a Conditional Form, after endless delays and an elongated hype trail. Post-Notes, it’s symbolic of better times – where we hadn’t yet been let down by the exhaustive hour-20 bloat that ensued. In either case, through the good times and the bad, “Too Shy” survived. It stood alone as one of the band’s brightest and bubbliest singles to date. Everybody wants to rule the world, but “Too Shy” actually followed through on it.
17. Cry Club – Obvious
There’s two pertinent lines in “Obvious.” The first, from the perspective of Heather Riley’s bank account, is “Bitch, you need to stay at home.” This, mind, was written well before every bitch needed to stay at home for months. The other is in the song’s chorus: “How could anyone say no?” Cry Club are irresistible by design. They are a beloved pop band making beloved pop songs. This is among the best they’ve penned, from its ascending cascade of keys to its urgent, propulsive drums and topped off with a sweet cherry of a melody. Cry Club feels like home.
16. Jackson Wang – 100 Ways
Jackson Wang is from a South Korean boy band. No, not that one. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter which one he’s from. This is about Jackson Wang, solo star. By all rights, “100 Ways” should’ve been as explosive a hit single as… well, “Dynamite.” The state-of-the-art LOSTBOY beat, the Paul Simon flip of the chorus, the oozing charisma of Wang himself… goddamn, “100 Ways” has everything going for it. What gives, America? He’s even on 88Rising, and y’all LOVE them. Wang can do more as one man than most boys can do as a group of seven – including his own.
15. Urthboy – The Night Took You
They say that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Urthboy knows this well, but consider that he’s spent the last 20-plus years being unbroken. If anyone’s earned the right to go in and smash shit up, it’s him. “The Night Took You” is the sound of one of the country’s all-time greatest MCs risking it all by not spitting a single bar. A weary, heartfelt melody takes its place, accompanied by plaintive piano and stirring strings. How then, does this recipe for potential disaster taste so rich and fulfilling? It’s simple, really: Urthboy rebuilt in his very own image.
14. Good Sad Happy Bad – Shades
Several circumstances lead to Micachu & The Shapes changing their name. Raisa Khan took over on lead vocals, for one; multi-instrumentalist CJ Caladerwood expanded the band to a quartet, for another. Ultimately, it came down to drawing a line in the sand. That was then, this is now. “Shades” feels like a new chapter, in that sense. It pulls many of the same shapes as the Shapes, but it’s cast through a new lense. Khan’s reserved, distinct delivery pairs well against the harsh synth and feedback-heavy sax. It’s the future, but it’s now. It’s here. Come, see the bright side.
13. The Beths – Out of Sight
“Out of Sight” doesn’t do anything particularly different for The Beths. It’s more resplendent, sun-kissed indie-pop that revels in its darker corners while never losing its brightness. This, of course, changes once you find yourself below its surface. In the thick of this song is a shattering piece of love-lorn poetry: “I’ll keep a flame burning inside,” offers vocalist Liz Stokes, “if you need to bum a light.” Her bandmates allow the song’s sentimentality to both simmer and burst into life – see Jon Pearce’s impeccable lead guitar and Tristan Deck’s racing snare-rim. It’s not particularly different, no. It’s better.
12. The 1975 – Me & You Together Song
“We went to Winter Wonderland,” reminisces 1975 frontman Matty Healy amidst his love-letter to 90s jangle-pop. “It was shit, but we were happy.” A potentially-revelatory thought: Could The 1975 themselves be the Winter Wonderland of the pop world? This is a band acutely aware of its shortcomings, prone to self-sabotage and over-indulgence among many other things. In the times when you need them the most, however, they glisten. They are everything you need. You – and they – are happy. You’ll let them make a two-hour triple album if it means three minutes of paradise like this. You and them together.
11. Fontaines D.C. – I Don’t Belong
“Dublin in the rain is mine,” boasted Grian Chatten at the beginning of his band’s acclaimed debut album a year prior. What a difference a year makes. He can see clearly now, the rain has gone. “I don’t want to belong to anyone,” he prophesises at the beginning of his band’s acclaimed second album. A new man, fronting a new band. Methodical, refined, steely in focus. Slow to build and bright to burn. Once standing on the shoulders of giants, now giants themselves. They roam this barren, empty land. “I Don’t Belong” is a new beginning and a turning tide.
10. 5 Seconds of Summer – No Shame
When did 5 Seconds of Summer go from being – to borrow a phrase – boys to men? There are several key points along the Sydney band’s trajectory: Making it in America, crashing under the weight of expectation with their sophomore slump, blazing a comeback trail with a global number-one smash. These are all worthy answers, and testament to 5SOS’ maturation and evolution. If you want the proper answer, however, it lies within the confines of “No Shame:” They’re finally so famous that they’ve written a song about being famous.
Not only have they done that, they’ve written one of the best songs of their career. It’s a move that can go drastically wrong – lest we forget the band’s heroes, Good Charlotte, absolutely whiffing it with their 2005 tantrum “I Just Wanna Live.” What makes “No Shame” stand out, then, is its revelry. “I only light up when cameras are flashing,” boasts vocalist Luke Hemmings, stomping down on his territory as Ashton Irwin smacks out a “Closer” disco groove. That’s not the first Nine Inch Nails reference 5SOS have made of late, either. Rather than rally against the starfuckers, however, 5SOS are leaning directly into their primitive, forceful nature. “Go on, replace me,” Hemmings taunts. “When you’re cravin’ somethin’ sweeter than the words I left in your mouth/Go on and spit me out.” He’s seen his band get dumped in the bin before, he’s not afraid of it happening again.
That’s the thing about “No Shame.” It’s got nothing to lose. It’s a dark, sneering pop song, driven by a washed out, “Come As You Are”-esque guitar line and the guttural squelch of bass-synth patched in with the industrial-tinged beat programming. Australia’s biggest boy-band export have burned their lovable-larrikin image to the ground. No more cutesy cock-rock, or acoustic gaslighting anthems, or even pushing and pulling away.
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”– 11 Corinthians 3
5 Seconds of Summer are men now. Treat them as such.
9. Sports Team – Here’s the Thing
Is it still the revival? Are we in the revival of the garage rock revival? What of the post-punk revival? There’s a revival every minute, because there’s a lot of money in it. And here’s the kicker: The song that’s referencing is old enough to attend high school by now.
Needless to say, it’s anyone’s guess where Sports Team end up in this trajectory. Consider this: Arctic Monkeys got their start kicking out Strokes and Vines covers, the hyped bands of their teens. Sports Team, and bands of their ilk, almost definitely got their start on Arctic Monkeys covers. Maybe even Art Brut and Maxïmo Park too, actually – oft-forgotten names that may be more influential on the current generation of UK rock than anyone is willing to give credit for. Either way the baton has been passed, and a new breed of sardonic English artists are emerging to rattle whatever foundations are left.
Sports Team arrive on the scene as bitter upstarts. Even their name sounds ironic – like, ooh, go team! I love my sports because I’m a man! Then again, of course Sports Team are bitter. Look at the world they’ve inherited – it’s drastically different to the one that the Monkeys and Bloc Party and the like took up in. They’re being fed a constant stream of bullshit on an information superhighway – and there they are, plugged in and playing in the middle of the road, trying to not get totalled by an oncoming truck.
This is at the core of their lead single, statement piece and soon-to-be signature song. “Here’s the Thing” is a barrage of slogans and self-help mantras, rattled off with increasing frustration by frontman Alex Rice. “Jesus loves you!” he chirps. “The football’s coming home!” Of course, as the band will happily remind us at the end of every verse: “It’s all just lies, lies, lies, lies.” The band themselves aren’t exempt from the smell of their own bullshit, either. “Hey, ma! I wrote a song!,” Rice cheers at one point. “Now everything’s alright!” It’s not, of course. Who knows if it will be. Still, despite their snark and their piss-antery, there is a bubbling undercurrent of hope that a band like Sports Team exists in the first place. That’s just the thing, isn’t it.
8. Peach Tree Rascals – Things Won’t Go My Way
At the time of writing, Peach Tree Rascals don’t have a genre listed on their Wikipedia page. That might seem like an oversight more than anything – symptomatic of an incomplete article – but it’s honestly worth thinking about. We’re in an age where everything can be categorised. An entire t-shirt can be filled with the names of subgenres – and sometimes that’s just subgenres for one genre itself. How the fuck are a band like Peach Tree Rascals getting away with not having a genre? Simple, really: They’re living by example.
For those playing catch-up, the NoCal collective first took off over on TikTok circa 2019 with their single “Mariposa.” While the success story isn’t unique – it probably makes up nearly half of the no-name artists on the charts currently rubbing shoulders with established giants – the song itself certainly was. It’s a zoomer’s take on sunny-afternoon, carefree 60s pop, mixing jazzy chord strums with the whirr of AutoTune and a multitude of vocal perspectives. Think BROCKHAMPTON covering The Turtles, or maybe the other way around. It’s not uncategorisable entirely, but it’s genre-free both by choice and by nature.
While not nearly as successful – it holds some four million Spotify streams to “Mariposa”’s 150 – “Things Won’t Go My Way” arguably goes a greater distance in emphatically diversifying the Rascals’ sound. The churning indie-rock guitar progression clatters and clangs against a sturdy bassline, washed-out keys and pristine pop drums. The vocals, too, range from understated lower-octave to reverb-heavy calls out from the ether. There’s lots of elements and moving parts at work here, but it never stakes permanent residence in any immediate musical spectrum.
One could also view this as a larger issue of music attempting a one-size-fits-all mentality – a mater of homogeneity rather than originality. To dismiss Peach Tree Rascals in such a manner is to miss the point entirely. It’s not that they’re trying to be too rap for indie, too indie for rap, or anything in-between. It’s that they simply don’t want to be. They want to be themselves. That’s something not enough acts aspire to.
7. Spanish Love Songs – Self-Destruction (As a Sensible Career Choice)
Just over a decade ago, pop-punk took a turn. Its stalwarts stayed true to the “my friends over you” and “girls are so confusing” school of songwriting, yes, but its contemporaries shifted into something harsher by touch and texture. This notion of “realist pop-punk” came primarily from young American men in their early to mid 20s, attempting to find their own place in the world and assuring those around them that they were not alone in their confusions and general anxiety. The Wonder Years, Transit, Fireworks, Real Friends – even the more belligerent acts like The Story So Far and a young Turnover eventually transitioned into this more emotive musical territory.
Bands like Spanish Love Songs were born in the wake of this, and have molded themselves in this image. Whether you see it as a gritty reboot of pop-punk, the fourth wave of emo or something new entirely, it’s grown increasingly hard to deny its presence. From The Hotelier and Modern Baseball to Sorority Noise and You Blew It!, this sound made waves and developed cult status through the 2010s – occasionally spilling over into mainstream crossover with the success of by-products like Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers.
We may have entered a new decade, but the grievances and turmoil faced by this generation of songwriters hasn’t magically gone away. “Need about 30 goddamn miracles,” spits Dylan Slocum – a nihilistic twist on the tried-and-true trope of needing a miracle. While previous generations couldn’t see the forest for the trees, he “can’t see the world is burning down/’Til we’re living underwater.” It’s a devastating lyric sheet – and entirely emblematic of what follows on third album Brave Faces Everyone. What, then, makes a song like this so rousing and endearing?
For one, it’s an immaculately-crafted piece of alternative rock. The crunch of its guitar tone bounces off the wallop of the drums, with Slocum’s histrionic howl centring itself within the fold. That piercing lead guitar in the chorus cuts straight through the treacle, adding an even sweeter release to the already-powerful hook of “It won’t be this bleak forever.” That’s not even touching the military precision of the chorus’ stop-start reinvention in the finale – as a unit, SLS really stick the landing on this one.
Perhaps its most endearing moment, however, comes in the twist of its closing moments. The whole song sees Slocum fighting against the hook – it’s always bookended with an addendum like “yeah, right” or “have you seen me lately?” For its final repetition, however, Slocum doesn’t talk back. He lets it sit. It’s a flicker of hope. It’s a resolute moment after three minutes of turmoil and tragedy.
In an interview with Billboard, Slocum reasoned that the entire purpose of a project like Spanish Love Songs was to make people feel less alone. “It’s bleak stuff, but I find some comfort in knowing that we’re all in it together,” he says. He’s right – it is bleak. But it won’t be this bleak forever. It can’t be. Not with bands like Spanish Love Songs in our lives.
6. Soccer Mommy – circle the drain
Dan Mangan prophesised that “the indie queens are waiting” at the end of the 2000s. Tell you something for nothing: He didn’t know the half of it. By the end of the following decade, there were more young women and girls with a prominent position in indie rock than arguably ever before. Liz Phair wouldn’t have even needed a Guyville to exile from. The aforementioned Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers were among the top proprietors, not to mention their boygenius bandmate Lucy Dacus. How about Hop Along, Big Thief, Snail Mail, Waxahatchee, Japanese Breakfast, Mitski, Diet Cig, illuminati hotties… exhausted yet?
If it wasn’t obvious, Sophia Allison – aka Soccer Mommy – was another notable part of this wave. She could have perhaps even been its crescent, if only she hadn’t been crashed on by the ever-rising tide. Make no mistake, though: Soccer Mommy is no also-ran project, and “circle the drain” is no also-ran song. In fact, this song is so breathtakingly good that it will make you reconsider her entirely. Whether you liked her initially or not, this song proves she was considerably better than you were ever willing to give her credit for.
“circle the drain” succeeds in a way that previous Soccer Mommy tracks were not able to for one clear-cut reason: It’s found a niche. Rather than trying to keep up any kind of indie-darling purist facade, the song instead openly and outwardly opts to be a pop-rock song. Allison has noted that Avril Lavigne’s second album, 2004’s Under My Skin, was the first album she ever bought. Lavigne’s influence plays a key role here – this sounds exactly like it could be a cut from either of her first two records. We’re all adults here, by the way – we can all acknowledge those records as being excellent now.
This isn’t a bratty “Sk8er Boi” moment, though it’s not exactly “Nobody’s Home” either. Think more “Mobile,” or “Things I’ll Never Say.” Pensive, forlorn pop with a dozen guitars jangling around inside of it and processed beats that just dash across the turn of the century. Here’s where the carving knife for Allison’s niche grows particularly sharp: The song may musically be indebted to a bygone era, but its lyricism details an acute millennial malaise that can only come with someone of her age at this exact moment in time.
Perhaps it was wrong to overlook Soccer Mommy when she first arrived on the scene. Then again, perhaps that very notion makes “circle the drain” all the more triumphant. It’s one of the year’s most unexpected delicacies – a left-of-centre dream-pop diary entry that potently merges the past, the present and the future. Round and round we go, once more.
5. Miel – Must Be Fine
Miel Breduow never had to explain that she wasn’t kidding.
Under regular circumstances, a person best known for doing comedy has to clarify what’s sincere and what isn’t. From Nanette to Wolfie’s Just Fine to… ahem… Dane Cook’s “Forward,” there are countless examples of comics moving into earnest territory. Bredouw isn’t all that different. She goofed around on Vine at its peak, ending up on countless compilations and keeping the dream of Keisza’s “Hideaway” alive. She moved over to podcasting and found a new cult following as she punched up countless jams, both with friends and on her own. She is, as Streisand would say, a funny girl.
When “Must Be Fine” came out, Miel never had to explain that she wasn’t kidding. Why?
The answer is twofold. The first is a reflection on the kind of person Bredouw is – or, at the very least, a reflection on the public persona fans and listeners have come to know through her work. Even when making ridiculous jokes or shriek-laughing at more of Chris Fleming‘s escapades, she comes across as entirely genuine. The kind of person who means what they say, who wouldn’t be laughing if they didn’t find it funny and the kind of person who sees honesty as the best policy.
More pertinent to the song itself, though, is that secondly there’s basically no other read you can give on “Must Be Fine.” It’s a cutting song – it’s sharp, and goes surprisingly deep for a two-and-a-half-minute song with two verses, two choruses and a bridge. A bridge that doesn’t lead anywhere, either – which is surprising on the first listen, but once you’re intimately familiar with your surrounds it clicks and begins to make sense. This isn’t a story with a definitive conclusion. There are no heroes and villains. It’s a time-lapse of a flower withering beneath a descending California sunset. It’s beauty and loss and tragedy within a sunburnt city landscape.
Hannah Gadsby, who performed the aforementioned Nanette, speaks of the effects of laughter in that show. “Laughter is very good for the human,” she said. “It really is, because when you laugh you release tension. When you hold tension in your human body, it’s not healthy. It’s not healthy psychologically or physically.”
Miel’s work has always released tension. It’s interesting, then, that her work that achieved this in the most accomplished of ways was not centred on laughter. And she never had to explain that she wasn’t kidding.
4. Sarah Jarosz – Johnny
“Why is it that we can feel so robbed when someone tells us a story we just heard isn’t true, and yet feel so satisfied at the end of a fictional novel?” This is a question posed by puppet-comedian Randy Feltface in his 2015 show Randy Writes a Novel, which comes at the end of perhaps the show’s finest moment of storytelling. (Referencing that quote if you haven’t seen the part in question is a bit of a spoiler, but so be it.) In songwriting, we’re so obsessed with the idea of what’s “real.” If it’s “real,” then it’s “authentic.” And if it’s “authentic,” then it’s inherently good. Or so we’re told.
“The tortured artist myth is rampant. People paint me as some kind of black witchcraft-practising devil from hell, that I have to be twisted and dark to do what I am doing. It’s a load of rubbish.” This is a quote from PJ Harvey, giving an interview to promote her 1998 album Is This Desire?. It’s an album, much like all of her work, that is steeped in character and fable-oriented lyricism. Does this make her work any less “real” or “authentic” because she didn’t literally drown her child like she sings on “Down By the Water”? Do we dare question men about this authenticity the same way we question women? Harvey’s one-time fling Nick Cave has been singing of murdering people for 30-plus years and has barely batted an eyelid in that time.
“Johnny’s on the back porch drinking red wine/He knows that it could be the very last time/He raises the glass up to his lips and wonders.” This is the opening line to “Johnny,” the lead single from Sarah Jarosz’ fifth studio album World on the Ground. Jarosz didn’t do a great deal of press for the album – for obvious reasons, of course – and so there isn’t a great deal of information as to whether the story told in the song is real.
The titular Johnny is staring down the barrel as he prepares to go in for open heart surgery – one fast move and he’s gone. It’s a moment filled with drama and suspense, and its unresolved nature only drives the intrigue even further. Did Johnny make it? Where is Johnny now? Is he even real to begin with?
Which then circles us back to these original points made by both Feltface and Harvey. Who cares if Johnny is real? “Johnny” is no less authentic because of it. It’s a striking, harmonious and emotive slice of Americana. Its lines trace around a bright octave mandolin, Levon Helm-esque drumming and rustic close harmonies that tie well into Jarosz’s bluegrass background. It’s certainly poppier than her earliest alt-country work, but that too doesn’t make it any less authentic. Any less real. From the second its tape-loop drone guides you in to the second its strummed mandolin lick guides you out, everything in “Johnny” is as real as it gets.
3. Hayley Williams – Simmer
Paramore is a band.
Hayley Williams is a musician.
Hayley Williams is in the band Paramore.
“Simmer” is a song.
“Simmer” is not a Paramore song.
“Simmer” is a song by Hayley Williams.
This may seem like a collection of more moot points than a Rick Springfield song, and rightly so. Still, you would genuinely be shocked at how many people took issue differentiating when “Simmer” arrived in the first few weeks of 2020. If this is a Hayley Williams song, does that mean Paramore no longer exist? There are other members of Paramore involved – does this mean Paramore has become Hayley Williams? Hayley Williams is the only member of Paramore that has an unbroken line on Paramore’s Wikipedia timeline from start to end – surely this means she’s some sort of fascist dictator?
Again, you don’t get this kind of malarkey with male-fronted bands. For whatever reason, though, drama and discourse follow Williams around like a bad smell. It’s enough to send you mad – and, in a way, that’s a lot of what “Simmer” is about. It’s about the acknowledgement, the processing and the temperament of one’s deepest, darkest and most seething hatred. Williams has been outwardly pissed off before – hell, her first few albums with Paramore were quite literally fuelled by teenage angst. It’s never felt as subversive and as outright threatening as it does on “Simmer,” though.
Why, exactly? Consider both the context and the delivery. The context is no longer a firebrand pop-punk upstart, it’s an embattled 30-something divorcee who has grown up in public and been to hell and back twice over. The delivery is no longer a roof-raising, glass-shattering yelp – a defiant voice aiming to be heard in a dude-heavy scene. No, Williams is done with that shit. If you want to hear what she has to say, you’re going to have to lean in a little closer. When you do, in the throes of the second verse, she quite literally ideates violence. To paraphrase Tegan & Sara, you feel the knife going in.
Heightening the context is the musical environment of “Simmer.” 15 years is a long time, and you feel all 15 of them when you draw the line from All We Know is Falling to “Simmer.” A smoky blend of trip-hop, indie and 21st-century pop lays out a trail of twists, turns and inevitable spirals. It’s a leap into the great unknown, and as Williams herself may have said 15 years prior you can feel the pressure.
How does one protect themselves, knowing danger awaits?
Williams knows. “Wrap yourself in petals for armor,” she says. Don’t mistake kindness for weakness. Your anger is a gift. A riot inside the mind is no lesser of a riot.
“Simmer” is a song.
It may be the best song Hayley Williams has ever sung.
2. EGOISM – Here’s the Thing
Breaking the fourth wall here slightly: Two different songs with the exact same title being in the same countdown has only ever happened once before. This was in 2018, when both Post Malone and Amy Shark released songs called “Psycho.” The pair both came at the titular phrase from unexpected places on surprisingly downbeat songs, unified by little more than a subversive take on a slightly-taboo word.
What, then, of “Here’s the Thing” and “Here’s the Thing”? Both come from upstart bands in their 20s, yes, but the similarities end conclusively there. Sports Team enlist the phrase like a weapon – a condescending, mansplaining place-setter, barked from the perspective of an elder statesmen with a chip on their shoulder. EGOISM, however, enlist the phrase as a jumping-off point. It’s the beginning of a difficult conversation. It’s the beginning of the end. The end of a beginning.
How could this phrase manage to hold such a different connotation in this context? Such weight? Truth be told, it’s part and parcel of EGOISM’s modus operandi. The band may traverse the realm of dream pop – often sonically light and airy by design – but their lyrical and thematic structure delve the inner depths as only the truest of confessionals can. It’s not for nothing that the duo of Olive Rush and Scout Eastment named their band after a school of philosophy defined as “concerned with the role of the self, or ego, as the motivation and goal of one’s own action.” EGOISM are at the centre of their own universe – and when they’re falling apart, it can only reflect in their music.
“Here’s the Thing,” with this taken into consideration, easily stands as the band’s most emotionally affecting song. Rush, who takes a stellar lead turn, spoke openly about the vulnerable place from which it came upon its release. They described it as being “about feeling like your heart is getting smashed into a million pieces.” It doesn’t get much more explicit in intent than that. This sentiment is subsequently reflected by the song’s palette, among the most tasteful the duo have ever composed. Striking math-rock chords ring out in tandem with sombre piano, while a ticking-clock snare rim ultimately gives way to a clattering loop that recalls that of Ben Lee’s similarly-pervious “Cigarettes Will Kill You.”
It’s the kind of thing one can find themselves simply entranced in, time and time again. It’s within these repeat listens one also finds themselves hearing things just that little bit different. The song’s seemingly-endless repeats of the same question – “Should you love somebody new?” – start to give way. Because of the quick succession of syllables, sometimes you can just mishear the “new” as simply an elongated part of the previous word – thus, forming an entirely new question of “Should you love somebody?”
It’s there that “Here’s the Thing” goes from wondering as to whether it’s worth starting again to wondering whether it’s worth it at all if this is where it will inevitably lead to. It’s a dark turn – and just think, that’s assembled entirely from something that’s not there. Imagine how much more there is to what’s actually present.
Eastment described “Here’s the Thing” as the best song Rush has ever written. She’s right, but not just from a songwriting perspective – from an egoism perspective. Months before “Here’s the Thing,” EGOISM had released “You You.” The Eastment-lead track covers very similar emotional ground: rising from the rubble left in the wake of a tattered relationship, knowing there is still love there but it cannot continue in the same way that it has. Eastment even acknowledges in the song’s Bandcamp notes that “Olive was going through something really similar at the time.” The mirror image is literally reflected between the two songs when Eastment takes lead on the bridge of “Here’s the Thing” – in the very same point of the song that Rush takes over from her on “You You,” no less.
I won’t mess with anyone else but
I won’t mess with anyone else but
I won’t mess with anyone else but you, you
The pair’s inextricable link and their unshakable bond is what keeps EGOISM alive. It’s what gets the two of them through their darkest moments. “Here’s the Thing” is the crack where the light gets in. A problem shared is a problem halved.
1. The Avalanches feat. Rivers Cuomo and Pink Siifu – Running Red Lights
In order to tell this story, you have to know where three different sets of people were in the year 2000 and where they were in 2020. Yes, this is a story that’s over 20 years old; let it be told.
The three sets are plunderphonics collective The Avalanches, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and singer-songwriter David Berman. With respect to Pink Siifu, his story doesn’t necessarily intertwine here. He appears here as more of a vessel than anything, but more on that later.
In 2000, The Avalanches released their debut studio album Since I Left You. It would turn them into one of the most internationally-acclaimed groups of next 12 months, scoring a boatload of ARIAs and selling out an explosive world tour in support of it. Their sample-heavy mix of pop, hip-hop, dance, funk, electronica, indie, rock and whatever other genres traversed their obscure record collection was a unique prospect. So much so, that The Avalanches’ idiosyncrasy raised a myriad of questions pertaining to how exactly they intended to follow such a seismic debut.
In 2000, Rivers Cuomo revived Weezer after a period of dormancy. He had spent the bulk of the late 90s – and, subsequently, the end of his 20s – in a spiral of depression. He, too, was plagued with the pressure of following up a hugely-influential debut album – and although Pinkerton was certainly not without its fans, it too found itself at the mercy of many a divided critic. With the band back in action and playing shows again, this was Cuomo’s impetus to start again – to finally achieve the greatness he’d been searching for.
In 2000, David Berman was between albums at the helm of the Silver Jews – the band with which he had made his name as a cult figure on the American indie rock circuit. His distinctive voice and unflinchingly-honest approach to lyrics and songwriting found a loving home on cult indie label Drag City, while the Jews’ initial lineup served as the launchpad for a separate juggernaut entirely in Pavement. Much like Cuomo, Berman would soon also find himself at odds with the black dog – a recurring motif throughout both his musical and personal life.
In 2020, The Avalanches were in the present tense again. Having finally followed up Since I Left You in 2016 with the technicolor experimentation of Wildflower, the group’s surviving duo – Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi – wanted to ensure that another new record would not take nearly as long. They began to assemble what would become their third album, We Will Always Love You – a tribute to those no longer with us, and a further exploration of what the group could sound like now that they were no longer defined entirely by a singular work.
In 2020, Rivers Cuomo was back at work again with Weezer. Truthfully, the band never really got off the wagon once that 2000 revival happened. The band scored big with hits like “Island in the Sun” and “Beverly Hills,” but their constant attempts at appealing to the same age demographic as they had a decade – and, eventually, two decades – prior saw their reputation end up in general disarray. Much like Paul Simon before him, Rivers Cuomo needed a photo opportunity and a shot at redemption. Thanks to Chater and Di Blasi, he was about to get one.
In 2020, David Berman was gone. He’d gone off to play the great gig in the sky a year prior, after ultimately losing his lifelong battle at the age of 52. As a collaborator on Wildflower, Berman was pulled out of reclusion by The Avalanches to contribute to a track on the album. He also later consented to having his work interpolated into a new song the band was working on – a gesture that, although he may not have fully realised at the time, was a parting gift and an eerie foreshadowing of what would come on We Will Always Love You.
There’s history in the walls of “Running Red Lights.” There’s ghosts in the walls, too. There are spirits in the night sky, looking down upon you as the city lights up. There’s over 20 years of stories in “Running Red Lights.” Stories of triumph, tragedy, love, loss, life, death and the human condition. What may be the most defining trait of the song, however, is its universality. The truth is, you can come to this song not knowing a single thing about any of its participants and get just as much out of it as someone who knows all of the above and then some.
The reason for this is that “Running Red Lights” is a momentous song – literally, of a moment. What that moment is, however, remains up to you. It can be a defiant rooftop primal scream, claiming the city for your taking. It can be a love-lorn, desperate plea to an estranged loved one. It can be your candle at the vigil memorial for someone you miss. It can be a sunlit drive, a rainy day or an autumnal stroll. Whatever it is to you, it’s yours. No-one can take that from you. No song in 2020 quite held such power in its runtime – and, indeed, long after the track subsides. It’s a crowning achievement for all involved, whether they’re around to see its fruits bared or not.
We are all we have.
We will always love you.
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Thank you for reading. See you next time.