A Little Darker Than I've Been Wanting You to See - My Ten(ish) Favorite Songs of 2020

At the end of 2019, a friend told me that, much to her surprise, one of her favorite records of the year was Immunity by Claire Cottrill, who performs under the name Clairo. 

I was aware of the record, to some extent, but hadn’t sat down with it at all, so at the start of 2020, I gave it a shot and I, too, found myself a little surprised at just how much I liked it. 

During my pre-dawn walks to work (I have found I write a lot about these w/r/t my experience with music) I started listening to “Feel Something”—entranced by the sorrow in the lyrics from the refrain: “You wanna feel something, but I don’t feel nothing.”

There’s a fine line between the two. There is a terribly delicate balance between feeling nothing at all, and feeling entirely too much of everything.

These songs are a reflection of 12 months spent trying, and usually coming up short, to maintain that balance. 

A Little Darker Than I've Been Wanting You to See (seamless mp3, right click, save as, et. al)

10. “I Should Probably Go to Bed (Acoustic Version)” by Dan + Shay

Who are Dan + Shay—truthfully, I don’t really know, and there is a part of me that doesn’t really want to know more than what I learned through some rudimentary internet searching. Up until the middle of September, I had never heard of the pop-country duo comprised of Dan Smeyers and Shay Mooney, and I had only heard about them while I was scouring Twitter, looking for clips of Taylor Swift performing a heavily edited version of “Betty” at the American Country Music Awards.

In my search, I found a clip of Dan + Shay on a moodily lit stage, maintaining a safe social distance from one another, performing the single “I Should Probably Go to Bed” to an empty auditorium due to the ongoing pandemic. I took one listen to the clip from the ACM Twitter account, and between the wildly tight harmonies from Smeyers and Mooney, and the theatricality and melodrama of the song, I was transfixed. 

The one-off single, “I Should Probably Go to Bed,” released at the end of July, is one thing—it’s good, but the clear use of a keyboard rather than a real piano, and the ‘aaahhhh’’s punctuating the refrain, along with the processing and effects added to the vocal tracks of both Mooney and Smeyers make it seem…..I hesitate to say it’s hard to take it seriously, but those elements really do detract from how great of a song it is. 

It’s impressive without all of that sheen.

The one-off single, “I Should Probably Go to Bed,” is one thing—it’s good; but the acoustic recording of it, released in mid-October, is something else all together. It is everything you’d hope the song to be, and more, and in a running time just shy of three minutes, Dan + Shay show you the power of what pop-country can do, and the kind of honest emotion it can get across.

In a crowd of strangers and lovers—someone told me that you were coming

I am uncertain right now how “I Should Probably Go to Bed” will age within a decade or more, but the reason that it resonates right now is that it is very of the times: it’s a timeless feeling set against a modern backdrop. It’s about heartbreak, and how someone—the protagonist, here—can more or less trick themselves into thinking that they have ‘gotten over’ someone who they are no longer in a relationship with. And if they were to see this person again, it would, as Mooney puts it, “Undo the ‘got over you’ that it took so long to find.”

The sentiment of “I Should Probably Go to Bed” isn’t ‘toxic’ per se, as the male perspective can be so often in pop music, and within the song, the protagonist is self-aware enough to know where to draw the line. Mooney is coerced out of the house by friends in an effort to ‘move on,’ but his evening out is cut short by the news that he just might run into his former partner. He concedes that he should, “Quit while he’s ahead,” by turning his phone off and simply going to bed. “I should probably leave you alone,” Mooney and Smeyers sing in the song’s refrain. “‘Cause I know in the morning, I’ll be calling, saying ‘sorry’ for the things I said.” 

The heartbreak, or at least the failed attempt at getting over heartbreak, and knowing one’s personal limitations involving specific people are damn near universal themes, and it’s delivered here earnestly, honestly, and beautiful. Mooney and Smeyers know how to write a memorable song—whether it’s the studio take, expected to be on the duo’s fourth full-length in 2012, or the acoustic recording—and more importantly, they know how to deliver a memorable song. It’s big and dramatic, and the two get the conceit of the song across in a way that looks totally effortless. 

9. “Lost One” by Jazmine Sullivan

The slowed down, cavernous guitar loop1 “Lost One” is based around has lived rent free in my head for the last four months.

“Lost One,” the first single released from Jazmine Sullivan’s forthcoming album Heaux Tales, is one of the rare cases where I don’t just see a headline on the music website Pitchfork, but I actually make the effort to click on the accompanying story. In this case, it was when “Lost One” was bestowed with the honor of “Best New Track,” three days after the song originally appeared online, and in his short write up about the song, Pitchfork staffer Marc Hogan describes “Lost One” as coming from a ‘deep well of regret.’

That is accurate, yes, but it really doesn’t do justice to the darkness, and the terrifyingly raw emotion Sullivan manages to pour out across a sparse three minutes.

In my lifetime, there are songs I have encountered that simply just knock the wind out of you. They stop you in your tracks, and demand to not only be listened to, but lived in, or experienced. 

“Lost One” is one of those songs. For three minutes, Sullivan pulls you down to a place of loneliness and devastation I did not think was possible to articulate, and for those three minutes, she never lets go—and maybe it’s the otherworldliness in the way the guitar sample reverberates, or maybe it’s the slight, very deliberate echo on Sullivan’s voice when she belts out, “Don’t have too much fun without me—don’t have too much fun”—but within the song, she never lets go, and you literally sink into the depths of “Lost One.” It is the kind of song that, even with how absolutely harrowing it is in its depiction of love and loss, you feel a sense of immediacy when it slowly fades out into the ether, and want to press play again. 

I know I’ve been nothing short of a disaster

The thing that makes “Lost One” what it is, aside from the way that guitar loop sits comfortably, haunting the absolute shit out of you, for three minutes, is the way Sullivan, whether she truthfully realized what she was doing or not when she wrote the song, contrasts all of the terrible emotions someone feels in the wake of a relationship’s demise. It’s breathtaking, specifically in how she lets her soulful, truthful voice carry it—especially toward the conclusion of the song, in the delivery of the refrain.

“Lost One,” more or less, deconstructs a narrative from one side of the relationship; the song’s first verse finds Sullivan setting the stage with bleak imagery—“You know when you lost one—you go out and fuck different people to cope, and ignore all precautions,” she states bluntly. “You drink and you drink and get faded; you feel like that’s your only option.”

In the second verse, it doesn’t find Sullivan so much taking responsibility for the demise of the relationship, but she starts to backpedal slightly, becoming apologetic and self-effacing—“I know I’m a selfish bitch,” she confesses. “But I want you to know I’ve been working on it.” Then, later, delivering perhaps the line that resonated the hardest with me: “I know I have been nothing short of a disaster.”

The juxtaposition of anger, self-pity, and sorrow is then laid out against the song’s refrain, which is maybe the most difficult thing to hear, both lyrically, and emotionally, because of where it is coming from. Does it come from a place of jealousy? Does it come from a place of endless regret? Does it come from a place emotional pain and unfathomable loneliness? “Just don’t have too much fun without me,” she bellows, with a voice that is so visceral it could move mountains. “Please don’t forget about me,” she begs. “Try not to love no one.”

In her decade plus as a singer, leaning into very contemporary R&B, Sullivan has never put together a song quite like this, and truthfully, there is a very good chance she’ll never repeat the feeling “Lost One” has. The subsequent advance single from Heaux Tales finds her returning to more familiar and possibly more comfortable and accessible territory sonically. And that’s okay. I, personally, would love an album entirely comprised of songs this skeletal and emotionally ruining, but I also don’t know if I am in a place right now where I could handle that. “Lost One” is representative of a moment in time—Sullivan, herself, writing from the loneliness and darkest place, and a fleeting interval where she was perhaps feeling more experimental in her creativity; we have this moment, and this moment is the kind of thing that lingers like a ghost, long after the song fades away into the distance. 

8. “Forgiveness” by Joe Goodkin

At the end of April, my longtime internet friend2, Chicago-based singer and songwriter Joe Goodkin sent me an email—one mostly to check in to see how I was holding up during the very early days of the pandemic3, but also to provide an advance copy of his forthcoming single, “Forgiveness.” 

Following last year’s Paper Arrows LP, which found him revisiting some of his oldest material (written when he was performing with the ‘band’ Paper Arrows) but reinterpreting it to match the sound and style with which he primarily performs now: solo, acoustic, sparse, and often sad as hell—Goodkin’s intent for 2020 was to release a new, stand-alone single at the conclusion of every month. The eerily prophetic and somber “Forgiveness” was slated for release at the end of May—by then, as well as into the beginning of June, the song’s lyrics would only become even more unsettling in how they began to reflect the events and underlying feeling of the world at large—the world, more or less, that was falling apart.

The most unsettling element to all of this is that Goodkin told me he wrote the song in December 2019.

“Forgiveness,” musically, is an enormous departure for Goodkin—for someone who makes his living with the acoustic guitar, it is surprisingly and intentionally missing from the song. Instead, he’s joined by the piano (played by his dad), and a mournful sounding trumpet that serves as punctuation to the emotional gravity of the song.

I’d say goodbye to everyone I ever loved, and everyone I ever hurt

Goodkin, as a songwriter who explored the ghosts that have haunted a bulk of his adult life on the songs written for his Record of series, is no stranger to darkness—but his lyrics, and imagery he conjures, have rarely, if ever, been this fucking bleak before. A harrowing, gorgeous song, the music strikes the obvious sound of melancholy, but the really harrowing nature of “Forgiveness,” and the emotional rollercoaster it plunges you into, is in Goodkin’s words. 

The song’s first verse paints an unsettling, desolate scene—“The sirens mourn the year,” he sings; then, later, in the refrain, surprising lines that, by the time the song was released, seemed like they had been written with the day’s news headlines in mind: “They’re selling tickets to watch the city burn. They’re taking pictures of the fires, and no one ever learns.”

“Forgiveness,” in its second verse, then takes a turn—an introspective, reflective, and extremely dark one. “I wish a flood would come and wash us into dirt,” Goodkin utters. “The burden lifted would be so sweet. I’d say good bye to everyone I ever loved and everyone I ever hurt—and drift away like a ghost wrapped in a sheet.”

I think about those words a lot, and have regularly since I first played “Forgiveness,” and sat in awe while it unfolded around me. It’s that kind of cutting honesty Goodkin often found himself displaying throughout the songs on the Record of EPs, and it’s that kind of cutting honesty about mortality, existentialism, and the human condition that stays with you—and more than likely never leaves you. 

“Forgiveness” isn’t all cities on fire, devastating floods, and fading away like the ghosts we all become in one way or another; there is, albeit a sliver, resolve near the end of the song. There is a sense of deep regret that runs throughout the song—it is alluded to in the rest of the first verse: “Time has gone and disappeared—the echoes slipping through our hands.” Goodkin returns to that well of regret at the end of the song, too: “Im thinking of the life we could have lived. My tears are telling me that it’s never too late to forgive.”

Over five years ago, when Goodkin and I first struck up our internet-based friendship, I put together a review of his first solo EP, Record of Life—the opening line to it was, “Every time I’ve listened to Record of Life, I’ve started to cry.” This was not hyperbole, and Goodkin, in return, used this quote in press materials when promoting the follow up EP, Record of Loss. There’s a reason why I began the review that way, and there’s a reason why Goodkin is one of the most evocative, literate, honest, and innovative songwriters working today, and the tight emotional grip of “Forgiveness” only cements this further.

7. “Anything” by Adrianne Lenker

A number of musicians or performers were more or less sidelined completely for most of 2020 due to the pandemic; while many were financially impacted by the inability to tour, there were others who used the time—specifically early on—to continue making music as a response to how they were feeling at the time, or exploring aspects of their creativity they might not otherwise have done.

Following the release of two albums in 2019, the indie folk outfit Big Thief were on a tour that was canceled when the world went into lockdown. The band’s frontwoman, Adrianne Lenker, retreated to a cabin in Massachusetts, and, as she details in the handwritten liner notes, after a month or so of haphazard preparation, she and collaborator Phil Weinrobe spent four weeks in the early spring recording the material that would become Songs and Instrumentals, a double LP issued five months later.

Part of me hesitates to say that Lenker’s singing voice is an acquired taste, but there’s a very delicate whimsy to it that might not be for everyone, and in truth, I was uncertain if it was for me at first, as I have never sat down with anything she’s recorded with Big Thief or any of her previous solo outings. It takes just a little bit of time to ease into it once you make one effort, and sequenced early on within the first side of Songs was the song that made me a believer in the album from the moment I heard it, is the tender, swirling, shuffling, “Anything.”

I wanna sleep in your car while you’re driving—laying your lap when I’m crying

The thing about “Anything” is that once it starts, it never relents until its conclusion—its momentum, yes, even as melancholic and reflective of a song as it is, is incredible. Really, no song this heartbreaking in its unabashed honesty should move along this quickly. 

I was trying to find the right word to describe “Anything”—like, the feeling it has outside of the very real sense of bittersweet longing and sadness, and all the myriad other descriptors you could fill in there—and what I came up with is ‘quaint.’ There is something very quaint and fittingly ‘folksy’ about it; of course the instrumentation lends itself to that, but it’s also the pattern Lenker’s lyrics follow with their rhyme. She’s very committed to making such a strict scheme work, with the four lines in each stanza almost always ending with the same sound, even if it is a bit of a stretch, or turns into a ‘near rhyme.’ Initially, it seems limiting to do that, but as the song continues to unravel itself, and the more you sit with it, it is clear what a challenge that must have been as a songwriter to constructive the narrative of “Anything” while using these parameters.

A bulk of “Anything” is dedicated to the rattling off of fragmented, ambiguous imagery—while there is a vagueness about a lot of it, and at times it moves like a scenes from a dream, it is always evocative. And as it heads into the second verse, then the refrain, it does take a more serious, grounded turn.

The context, if any, “Anything” could be placed in, is that it is worth knowing Lenker went through a breakup right before retreating into the seclusion of her cabin, which helps elaborate slightly on parts of the song that seem more autobiographical—“Christmas Eve with your mother and sis,” she begins in the second verse. “Don’t wanna fight but your mother insists. Dog’s white teeth slice right through my wrist; drive to the ER and the put me on a list. Grocery store list, now you get pissed…,” and here is where she breaks the rhyming pattern, which draws an enormous, and intentional, amount of attention to the next two lines: “I don’t wanna be the owner of your fantasy—I just wanna be part of your family.”

As “Anything” continues to swirl around, it becomes more and more apparent that it is, by the end, not a ‘break up song,’ but a song that reflects on the perhaps whirlwind relationship Lenker was in, for roughly a year or so, with musician Indigo Sparkle, who is directly called out near the end: “You held me the whole way through when I couldn’t say the words like you. I was scared, Indigo, but I wanted to.”

It’s the refrain of “Anything,” though, both lyrically and the way those lyrics fall into a melody, that made me appreciate both Lenker’s Songs and Instrumentals, but specifically this song. There’s a moderately hypnotic use of repetition: “I don’t wanna talk about anything/I don’t wanna talk about anything,” she sings, then changing it to “talk about anyone,” a few lines later. And out of all the lyrics, and images, packed into “Anything,” there are these fragile, beautiful moments of quiet intimacy in the refrain, which are the most evocative and touching—“I wanna kiss, kiss your eyes again/Wanna witness your eyes looking,” and I think my favorite from the entire song: “I wanna sleep in your car while you’re driving/Lay in your lap when I’m crying.”

“Anything” arrives like a whispered secret that you both want to keep to yourself but that you also cannot wait to share with someone else who you know will appreciate it just as much as you do. It’s a haunting but absolutely gorgeous reflection on love and loss, and what to do when the specter of that love lingers.

6. “Why We Ever” by Hayley Williams

Between the time it was issued on the Petals for Armor II EP, in April, and when it appeared on the complete album, also titled Petals for Armor4, released a month later, I had two very distinct moments when “Why We Ever” really resonated with me—one being slightly more poignant than the other.

The first was when I really paid attention to when the song switches tone, and direction. Written at what Hayley Williams calls her “lowest point,” near the end of 2018, “Why We Ever,” while being obviously somber across the board, musically, at least in its first part, is still anchored by a borderline funky, slinking rhythm and bass line, specifically during its refrain. 

However, for roughly the first two minutes, the song is still infectiously structured— it just happens to be about something sad. Shortly before the two minute mark, “Why We Ever” doesn’t abruptly change, but there is a shift when the first portion of the song reaches a somewhat logical conclusion, and the second part, or ‘movement,’ if you will, begins, ushered in by a creaking, cavernous sounding piano. And after Williams delivers a few plaintive lines, there is yet another shift, back in the direction of less organic instrumentation—the heavy bass returns, though less slinking, a skittering drum machine rhythm tumbles in place, and the piano evaporates into a warm, at times glitchy, keyboard—it’s this arrangement that takes the listener through to the end, and while these quick tonal shifts might not be a big deal for everyone, from a technical aspect, especially while listening to this song morning after morning on my pre-sunrise walks to work, the thought behind the way the gravity of the song continued to shift itself was an impressive element, among others, that made “Why We Ever” a standout moment among Williams’ solo debut.

Tried to keep myself from hurting—I don’t know why anymore

The other moment with “Why We Ever,” came after the song’s lyrics began to sink in a little more in the early days of the pandemic—days that were difficult, yes, and full of uncertainty, but also slivers of optimism that the state of the world was not going to last that long. 

I’ve spent a while on the stranger side of your door,” she sings in the song’s first verse. “How do you sound? What do you look like now?,” she continues. And yes, “Why We Ever” was written well over a year before the pandemic, and social distancing, and quarantining yourself, but on those morning walks, the lyrics began to form a somewhat unsettling reflection of the world we all found ourselves in. “Tin-can telephone from your home to my home—I can’t feel your energy no more,” she sings in the second verse; then, as “Why We Ever” shifts from one movement to the other, Williams’ lyrics descend into a place of palpable melancholy and loneliness—“I spent the weekend at home again drawing circles on the floor/Tried to keep myself from hurting—I don’t know why anymore.”

Williams alluded to this song being about ‘sabotaging the best thing,’ and as “Why We Ever” continues to shift throughout, by the time it arrives in its final moments, she begins repeating a sequence of lyrics that hint at something important that is going unspoken, but within the song, and presumably in the events that inspired this, there is no resolution. “I just want to talk about it,” she sings as the keyboards and programmed rhythms swirl around her. “I know I freaked you out.”

The neat trick, intentional or not, with “Why We Ever,” is that Williams never reveals what the ‘it’ is—and the song ends with this terrible sense of tension.

There were a number of good, and even fun, songs on Petals For Armor, but it was “Why We Ever” that managed to capture a moment—for Williams, a personal one that, even outside of the times we live in now, you could very easily see reflections of yourself in, as well as a chilling, seemingly never-ending moment of loneliness and uncertainty. 

5. “Las Manos” by Cartalk

Of all the music writing tropes I end up incorporating, outside of the expressions ‘evocative imagery’ and ‘fragmented lyrics,’ one thing I feel like I have fallen into using a lot as of late is the concept of tension and release—both finding the balance between the two, as well as when there is noticeably more of one and a lot less of the other.

‘Quiet/Loud/Quiet’ songwriting is not a new idea—The Pixies and Nirvana both did it, and found success with it, but it takes a lot of skill and patience to pull it off well; to know just how long to keep things quiet, and create that sense of tension, and then to know when simply let it all go and have everything explode around you.

The sudden explosive nature of “Las Manos,”the third track on the arresting debut from Chuck Moore’s Cartalk project, comes as a total surprised based on the direction the album takes up until that point. The first song, “Arroyo Tunnels,” simmers slowly and hauntingly; the second track, “Noonday Devil,” soars and shimmers with indie rock grandeur—neither of them prepare you for the intensity that detonates as you can almost hear Moore back away from their microphone on the lyric, “At the back of the Hi-Hat, I left without your number,” and slam down on their distortion pedal, sending the song’s first instrumental break into a barrage of chaos.

Did my honesty scare you? Honestly, I scare me too.

A long gestating project, Moore is a gifted songwriter and lyricist and it shows in how thoughtful their songs are—it’s like reading the best kind of poetry; there are numerous moments across Pass Like Pollen that resonate, but none resonated louder, personally, than the beautiful and visceral “Las Manos”—at its core, a song about the beginning of Moore’s close friendship with musician Kenny Becker. Their lengthy, open conversations (“love our car talks”) inspired the band’s name, yes, but outside of being a dedication to friendship, it’s about the honest you have with yourself and with others—how much of yourself do you share before it becomes ‘too much,’ where are your boundaries, and how blurry are you willing to let them be?

Even if you share ‘too much’ of yourself, how much further do you keep pushing—Moore doesn’t so much answer on “Las Manos,” but at least reflects: “I’m not gonna backpedal, ‘cause I’m all caught up.”

In the song, Moore, through an astounding choice of language, describes what could only be called a small, beautiful detail you would notice about someone—“The expression of your hands paint shadows on a brick wall—a silent film I watch.” It’s the kind of description you can picture in your head, and it’s the kind of detail—something small, but something meaningful—you begin to look for in who you would consider to be your closest friend.

“Las Manos” is built around the idea of honesty, and what becomes of that honesty when it is out in the world: “Did my honest scare you?,” Moore asks in the song’s refrain, before answering the question themselves—“Honestly, I scare me too.” And if you are fortunate enough to have someone in your life that you are this close with, you have probably found yourself in this moment—the moments where the honesty is surprising for the both of you; the moments when you, perhaps accidentally, perhaps intentionally, reveal too much or finally say something that you haven’t been able to tell anybody else before. “Las Manos” is about those moments—how you got there, how you’ve been able to remain there, and what happens when your honesty takes someone by surprise. The song is a beautiful reflection on that moment where the friendship becomes something larger than it was before, finding the space for growth as individuals and growth within the relationship. 

4. “Exile” by Taylor Swift featuring Bon Iver

Folklore, Taylor Swift’s ‘surprise’ album recorded early on in the pandemic induced quarantine, is a long album—17 songs when all is said and done, and there are there are a handful of songs on that I would argue were, overall, more emotionally impactful for me this year; or, at the very least, there are very key lines from a handful of songs that are going to linger long after this wretched year has come to a close.

So what I am saying is that it was, originally, somewhat challenging to pick just one song off of the album to reflect on as one of my ‘favorites’ of the year. 

Yes, it is very clearly about toxic masculinity, but as the fourth track on Folklore, I knew I was in for something really fucking serious the first time I heard “Exile,” and those huge, cinematic, moody as shit piano chords came stumbling into my ears shortly before before Justin Vernon’s low, rumbling voice creeped in.

I would never say a song like “Exile” is ‘infectious,’ because it is a harrowing ballad about the bitter end of a relationship—however, I found the opening piano progression stuck in my head more often than it should have been. It shouldn’t be a ‘catchy’ song, but it is a memorable song—the drama of it all is what grabs your attention and then, really, never lets it go.

You never gave a warning sign/I gave so many signs

I think the thing that makes “Exile” so memorable is just how theatrical it becomes, but also just how earnest both Swift and Vernon are within that theatricality. It’s so dramatic it seems like it should be coming from the original cast recording of a Broadway musical about a doomed relationship—especially when the vocal tracks begin overlapping each other and the music absolutely swells to a gigantic size. 

Lyrically, “Exile” unfolds very deliberately in its pacing, and with a few lines, sets both the tone the song never deviates from, and the scene. It is, inherently, not a ‘break up’ song, but a song that documents what happens after a relationship is over, and when the feelings that were once loving are replaced with jealousy, resentment, and spite. 

“Exile” is told from both sides—with lyrical contributions from both Swift, her partner Joe Alwyn5, and Vernon, who added the bridge section after the original demo and lyrics were passed along to him. Vernon, sans the warbled Auto-Tune effects her’s allowed his voice to drown under on recent Bon Iver albums, plays the role of the heartbroken, though unlikeable, man, and he plays it well, not even batting an eyelash at the callousness of the lyrics: “I can see you standing, honey, with his arms around your body,” he begins in a low deadpan. “Laughing—but the joke’s not funny at all.” Clever in its structure, Swift counters all of his lyrics in the song’s second verse: “I can see you staring, honey, like he’s just your understudy—like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me.”

It took me a few listens to comprehend where the toxicity fell in “Exile,” but eventually, the awful sentiment behind Vernon’s lyric in the bridge—“There is no amount of crying I could do for you”—really registered, which is then followed closely by the emotional manipulation of the swelling, sweeping arrangements from producer Aaron Dessner, and the give and take of Vernon and Swift’s lyrics. It isn’t like an argument unfolding in front of you, set to music, but the unresolved and confusing from the end of a relationship begin to simmer as Vernon sings, “You never gave a warning sign,” with Swift, then, softly and calmly singing over the top of it, “I gave so many signs.”

“Exile” isn’t simply about how men are shitty in relationships, or about just a breakdown in communication that neither party was able to work through in a healthy way—but both of those elements play a big part in the story that unfolds. “Exile” is storytelling, though it’s a story that has aspects that we all too easily see parts of ourselves in; it’s storytelling—dramatic for the sake of being dramatic, or pulling some kind of tangible reaction from its audience. And it does it so god damn flawlessly that you cannot help but stop and gaze in awe. Unlike the unhappy couple shouting at each other in a restaurant, or on a public street, that you try to look away from, Swift and Vernon are able to find gorgeous but distressing beauty in a messy heartbreak.

3. “Pray it Away” by Hannah Georgas and Matt Berninger/“Take Me Out of Town” by Matt Berninger

Do I play fast and loose with the ‘rules’ or structure of these year end lists? Yes, maybe. Do I break my own rules one moment, only to follow them closely the next? Yes, maybe. There are a few things that connect these two songs; songs that were both too important to me this year that I couldn’t cut either of them from the list.

One of those connections should be very obvious. The other thing is not as obvious, unless you’ve heard either one of these songs before.

Then you probably know where this is going.

In my music writing, for the last, like, year and a half or so, since it became a ‘thing’ on the internet, I began using the expressions “I feel seen” or “I feel attacked” in reference to when I see specific parts of myself in a song. It’s meant partially in jest—and if anything, it’s more of a coping mechanism, or a device used to distract slightly from what it actually feels like when this happens. Sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes it’s really surprising. Other times, it doesn’t feel all that great, but you eventually learn to work through it, or take whatever appreciation you can from it.

I don’t want to say the first time I felt ‘seen’ by a pop song was a decade ago when I heard “Conversation 16” by The National, but we’re going to use it as a starting point, and since then, I have been absolutely captivated by the way The National’s lyricist and frontman, Matt Berninger, writes—I mean, I was before this point to, but there was a notable shift in the directness and indirectness of his lyrics during the band’s growth in 2010—but I was captivated by the way he writes about depression, or at the very least a melancholy, that you are unable to shake.

Berninger’s debut effort as a solo artist, released after two decades spent fronting one of the most important bands in my life, Serpentine Prison, is both exactly what you’d expect from a solo outing by Matt Berninger, and not. Working outside The National’s structure, musically it is much more reserved and far less dense and bombastic than latter day National records; lyrically, it is as morose as you might anticipate.

Swear to god—I’ve never been so burned out. Gonna lose it any minute.

Co-written by criminally underrated singer and songwriter Hayden Desser6, “Take Me Out of Town” arrives just after the middle portion of Serpentine Prison, in a string of pieces that are all emotionally challenging at their core, just presented in three very different ways. 

Accompanied at first by just a huge, creaking piano, then a low bass line that files in, the lyrics to “Take Me Out of Town” are blunt, and frankly upsetting at times; Berninger doesn’t mince words, and while he delivers them with a calm nature in his soothing baritone, there is a terrible, manic sense of urgency from the moment you hear his voice.

I stop short of saying that “Take Me Out of Town” came along at the ‘right’ time for me, but it came along when the kind of hopeless frustration Berninger goes on to describe in the song made a lot of sense to me—did I feel attacked? No. Did I feel ‘seen’? Maybe. Did I understand precisely what he is talking about in the song? A lot of the time, absolutely. 

In the end, jokes aside, there is a comfort, however small, to knowing that somebody out there is feeling remotely similar to how you feel—they just happen to be much more articulate at expressing it.

Swear to god—I’ve never been so burned out,” Berninger sings in the song’s first verse. “Gonna lose it any minute.” 

The feelings that he goes on to describe, as the instrumentation continues to build with acoustic guitar flourishes, gentle percussion, and the addition of a horn section, are familiar feelings—a terrible desperation, an immediacy, and a real reliance on someone else to—I hesitate to say ‘save’ you—but when Berninger sings, “I don’t know how to be here without you; I don’t know how to go on,” it’s easy to see that could be a toxic codependency, and it’s personally difficult not to recall the times I have fallen apart in front of a close friend, becoming, perhaps, too reliant on another to help me re-assemble the pieces.

Like a bulk of The National’s catalog, and like a handful of the songs on Serpentine Prison, “Take Me Out of Town” is a beautiful statement—the instrumentation and arranging, thanks to Berninger’s collaborator Booker T. Jones, is lush, warm, and inviting. But more importantly, “Take Me Out of Town” is a beautiful statement on the human condition. There’s no resolve at the end of the song—the final lyric is “I don’t know how to go on.” 

And that’s the truth, isn’t it? 

We don’t know. But we keep doing it regardless. 


If Cartalk’s “Las Manos” explores the place where being honest with yourself, and with somebody else, is difficult, but creates an opportunity for growth, what happens if that isn’t the case? What happens if you confess something to someone close, but in the moment, it is simply too much, and after the words leave your mouth, you can see the color drain from their face?

Found near the end of the first side to Hannah Georgas most recent effort, the aptly titled All That Emotion, I don’t want to say that the song “Pray it Away” needed to be mansplained to me in order for it to work, but releasing an alternate mix of it, as a single, featuring additional vocals from Matt Berninger, allowed the sentiments within the song to resonate just a little deeper.

I stop short of saying that this version of “Pray it Away,” digitally unveiled in early November, came along at the ‘right’ time for me, but it found me, or I found it, at a moment when I, without any doubt, made absolute sense to me. 

Will you still love me, even if I’m not what you thought?

With production, fittingly, from The National’s multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner, “Pray it Away” begins with the contrasting between a fragile, piano key plunking, and a synthesizer that slices its way in-between the notes. From there, Berninger, who takes the first verse, wastes no time with the his entrance, and the delivery of the song’s chilling opening line—“I’ve been afraid to tell you everything that’s going on in my head.” If the song didn’t already have my attention from the delicate, haunting way it begins, it had my full attention after hearing that line—both the lyric itself, and through the timbre of Berninger’s voice.

Originally sung only by Georgas, turning “Pray it Away” into a duet, or sorts, gives the song an additional layer—it becomes a conversation, or sorts, or at least, it allows the listener in on the give and take between two people internalizing what the conceit of the song is—what is strongly implied, at least to me, but never stated. 

“Pray it Away,” though, is about both Georgas’, as well as a close friend’s, difficulties navigating what it is like having extremely conservative families. And, even though the song is not entirely about what I had originally thought, that is what the song still represents to me7, and why it, so quickly, became something so important. 

The second verse, sung by Georgas, serves as a response, then, if you are looking at it through the lens of it being a back and forth. “I let you tell me everything you feel and I may not agree,” Georgas sings, her voice light and delicate. “I don’t believe in all the things you do, but that doesn’t matter to me.”

Berninger and Georgas sing the song’s haunting refrain together: “And I’ve been wondering will you still love me, even if I’m not what you thought?,” and given what “Pray it Away” is actually about, that lyric makes a lot of sense—though, even with how I’ve interpreted it, or with what it means to me, it also works.

It’s a question that, when asked in the song, sends a palpable emotional surge through the music; and it’s a question that, when asked in the song, is never answered.

If Cartalk’s “Las Manos” explores the place where being honest with yourself, and with somebody else, is difficult, but creates an opportunity for growth, what happens if that isn’t the case? What happens if you confess something to someone close, but in the moment, it is simply too much, and after the words leave your mouth, you can see the color drain from their face?

If you are fortunate, despite an unspoken nervousness between the both of you, it creates an opportunity for growth, and for the bond to become stronger. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

Left open to myriad interpretations, “Pray it Away” is, musically, gorgeous, and thematically, it’s a song about the difficulties maintaining what connects us, and what keeps those connections strong; it provides the opportunity for growth, yes, and it opens the door up for reflection—both for yourself, and for how someone else might see you. 


I was literally a day out from writing this portion of this list, and was all set to move onto “Moon Song” when Taylor Swift announced she was releasing a companion album to Folklore—among the songs on Evermore, arriving shortly after the halfway point, is the collaboration we had all been anticipating would come (just arriving much sooner than expected) between Swift and The National. “Coney Island,” a duet between Taylor Swift and Matt Berninger, penned by Swift and Aaron Dessner is the kind of song that is too good, and too emotionally eviscerating not to be included here, even if it is in a hastily written post script.

Based on the trajectory Swift has this year after beginning her collaborations with Dessner, “Coney Island” sounds precisely what you would think a song between The National and Swift would end up sounding like. It’s tense and brooding, but also so delicate, beautiful, and haunting. The arrangement and instrumentation both coasts gently underneath, but also swirls around—the gentle, rolling percussion of National drummer Bryan Devandorf creates the structure with which Dessner’s acoustic guitar plucking, and his brother Bryce’s piano begin gently circle around, with additional atmospherics and instrumentation tumbling in throughout. But thing about “Coney Island” is just how tense it is. It isn’t, like, anxiety producing tension, but it strikes a dramatic note right from the beginning, never lets go of it, and somehow—and this might be the most amazing thing about the way it’s performed—is that The National maintain it for like four and a half minutes.

Did I paint your bluest skies the darkest grey?

Lyrically, “Coney Island” is brutal. And like the music, Berninger and Swift barely raise their voices beyond a certain level. There’s a terrifying calm they both have—Berninger sounds especially despondent as he arrives in the song’s second verse; and even when they sing together, or when Swift layers her vocals, they maintain this reserve that, upon reflection, is surprisingly effective and also admirable.

And in that terrifying calm, Swift and Berninger both do their part in painting harrowing memories and reflections from a tumultuous relationship. “And if this is the long haul how’d we get here so soon?,” Swift asks in the song’s opening verse, followed quickly by one of the song’s most dramatic lines: “Did I close my fist around something delicate? Did I shatter you?

The tension that is that the core of the relationship depicted in “Coney Island” seems to be based around the difficulties of navigating success, or celebrity. “The question pounds my head—what’s a lifetime of achievement if it pushed you to the edge? But you were too polite to leave me,” Beringer says, his fragile baritone sliding in with the second verse.

It is well know that Taylor Swift can write the absolute shit out a bridge section in a song, and “Coney Island” is no exception, with both her and Berninger’s voices coming together to make the tension of the song just a little tighter, before the song’s most difficult lines are uttered: “Did I paint your bluest skies the darkest grey?”

It is a story based in grief, but presented as a statement of beauty and there is, as you’d anticipate, no resolve in “Coney Island,” and in the end, as the song concludes, there is remorse, and regret, and they both beleaguer after the final notes ring out. 

2. “Moon Song” by Phoebe Bridgers

The thing about Phoebe Bridgers’ dark, and a times macabre, sense of humor, is that while it almost always works on the social media platforms she frequents, it sometimes takes time to find it, understand it, and appreciate it if she writes it into her music. 

“Moon Song,” the opening track to the second side of Bridgers’ sophomore full-length Punisher, and without a doubt, one of the most personally upsetting songs I have been introduced to in a very, very long time, is not, inherently, a humorous song, but among the stark imagery, she does manage to place a lyric that took me by surprise the first time I heard it, and still makes me laugh a little each time since. 

We hate ‘Tears in Heaven,’” she sings in the song’s second verse, with a cavalcade of atmospherics swirling around her, “But it’s sad his baby died.”

It’s funny; I think it’s funny, anyway. 

You are sick, and you’re married, and you might be dying—but you’re holding me like water in your hands.

I think I was ready for “Moon Song” to destroy me from the moment it. There’s a respite before the heavily effected guitar strums begin, where you can hear, like, a build up to that first strum, and the additional layers of atmosphere in the song are already starting to oscillate, and it just sets a tone for something that you know is going to be heavy; something that you know is going to wreck you.

There’s a lot of speculation about who “Moon Song” is about—if it is the depiction of one person, or an antagonist created through a composite. Since “Motion Sickness,”8 I get the impression that Bridgers, now, as a writer, wants to remain somewhat vague, or shadowy, in the way she depicts the object of her affection in a song. The ‘verified commentary’ on Genius does little to give away any of the song’s secrets—“it’s so hyper-specific to people and a person and about a relationship, but it’s also every single song. I feel complex about every single person I’ve ever cared about, and I think that’s pretty clear.

The speculation is that it, in part, is about her Better Oblivion Community Center bandmate Connor Oberst, but the speculation, I think, comes from a thirsty portion of the internet, desperate for hot indie rock goss, and an inability to leave some things shrouded in partial ambiguity. It is, at its heart, about loving someone who hates themselves, and how difficult and destructive it is for both people involved.

Bridgers, an incredible songwriter, in “Moon Song,” chooses to be both shadowy with who the song is about, but also how the narrative within the song unfolds, which is, objectively, what makes it so compelling and emotionally stirring. The imagery she uses, much like what is depicted within the song’s final verse, is dream-like, and it all unfold very deliberately; slowly and swooning.

Bridgers, a fiercely intelligent songwriter, works in self-referential winks that are obvious enough that the audience gets it, but subtle enough that they don’t distract from the song—in the song’s final lines, she refers to herself as “The Killer,” a nod to the devastating song of the same name from her debut, Stranger in The Alps; she also goes so far as to reference the ‘dead bird’ metaphor from this song at the end of Punisher, in the equally as emotionally ruining “I Know The End.”

Bridgers’ sense of humor doesn’t always come through in her music, but the excruciatingly raw emotion alway, always does and when she sings the titular phrase of “Moon Song,” “If I could give you the moon, I would give you the moon,” there’s a horrible, beautiful sadness, desperation, and longing that comes through that is heartbreaking every time I hear it.

Of all the songs on Punisher that could I could deep this personally upsetting, and out of all the songs released 2020 I could refer to in the same way, “Moon Song” earns that distinction not because it made me feel seen nor attacked, surprisingly, but because I have been there—maybe you have too, so maybe you understand. When Bridgers sings calmly, at first, then less so, in the song’s second verse—“You couldn’t have stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody who loves you more,” what I’m saying is I understand. Because to an extent, I have been there. And maybe you have too. 

And, in the song’s quiet, haunting opening lines, when Bridgers sings “You asked me to walk you home but I had to carry you—and you pushed me in, and now my feet can’t touch the bottom of you,” what I’m saying is that I understand what this feels like. And maybe you do too.

There were countless moments during my original listens through “Moon Song” that resulted in an actual physical feeling coming over me—starting deep within my chest and working itself out from there, but perhaps the one that had the most impact, and the one that still, at year’s end, hits me just as hard as it did the first time, are the final lines to the song: “You are sick, and you’re married, and you might be dying—but you’re holding me like water in your hands.”

Because sometimes you see reflection in one portion of the song; sometimes you see your reflection in the other. 

And sometimes everything is an awful, confusing blur and you wind up seeing yourself in both. “Moon Song” is so personally upsetting because in it, Bridgers captures the feeling of a moment—not just a moment, but the physicality of it. Sometimes it’s a moment you’ve already lived in, or lived through, and you both wish you could forget, but it’s something you often return to. And sometimes it’s a moment that hasn’t happened at all, but you are still living through it; you wish you could forget, but it’s something you, despite your best efforts, often return to.

1.“If You Call” by Angie McMahon featuring Leif Vollebekk

What I realized, lying on the floor of my living room, with Angie McMahon’s quarantine inspired Piano Salt spinning on the record player, is that as a songwriter, as well as singer, she has the power to stop time in its tracks. 

If I think about how I have selected, and then written about, my favorite song of the year over the last ten or so years, it has more often than not been the song that has had the most emotional impact on me. It’s like a Venn diagram, at times, where that impact converges with what is the most personally upsetting, which converges with a song that made me feel the most seen and attacked and in the center of the diagram is me, with my headphones on, crying at a computer, writing out another stupid and long thinkpiece that like 20 people are going to read.

Though “Moon Song” was the most personally upsetting for me in 2020, there was never really a doubt that “If You Call,” performed by Australian singer and songwriter Angie McMahon, and featuring harmony vocals and Wurlitzer from Leif Vollebekk, is the song that I probably spent the most time with—or, eventually, the most time immersed in. 

I’ve been a little darker than I’ve been wanting you to see, though you’ve been coming around needing to be looked after

“If You Call” was, in its original form, released in 2019 as the closing track on McMahon’s blistering debut, Salt. Performed on an acoustic guitar and recorded live in one take (you can hear the noises outside from where she’s singing), it was a very fitting closing track, but in the context of the album, for me, it was not as captivating as “Play The Game,” or the ramshackle, humorous “Slow Mover.”

The first single released from the Piano Salt EP, a ‘companion’ record of sorts that deconstructs a handful of tunes from Salt and reimagines them for the piano, this version of “If You Call” was released around five months in advance of the EP; the recording, with McMahon still on the guitar, was done separate from the rest of the sessions that were born out of the isolation during the early stages of the pandemic in March and April.

With warm instrumentation from both McMahon’s electric guitar and Vollebekk’s Wurlitzer, the two work their way through the song, letting their vocals intertwine gorgeously on specific lines in an effort to punctuate the emotional weight of the song. This song would hit hard even if we weren’t approaching a year of living in the shadow of what I still call ‘dat rona,’ but there’s imagery and themes in “If You Call” that hit even harder now because of the last 10 months, and because of the things my colleagues and I have been through. It was the song that soundtracked many, many mornings, before sunrise, on my walks to work, giving me time to let the lyrics, as well as the spectral, gorgeous instrumentation to wash over me.

“If You Call” asks a lot— of itself, yes, but also, it asks a lot of you. “I’m putting down the habit,” McMahon begins. “The habit of looking back and wishing I had done better.” She then has the audacity to she wants to feel that she likes who she is becoming—which, right now, is something that, for me, seems impossible.

The thing that made “If You Call” so impactful for me this year is what falls in between that big ask of self-improvement, and the sliver of hope that comes in the end, is the depiction of a close, albeit emotionally charged friendship. “I’ve been a little darker,” she warns in the song’s second verse, her voice dipping down to a low, visceral level. “Than I’ve been wanting you to see, though you’ve been coming around needing to be looked after.”

“If You Call,” as a reflection of this year, and as a reflection of close relationships, ends with the tiniest flicker of hope—“The loving that we’ve earned is gonna keep us breathing,” she assures as the song concludes. And even when McMahon, exasperated, explains that she doesn’t have an answer, there is also the hope, or the comfort, or the safety, in the bond that she is singing about—“If you call, I’ll turn on the light for you,” she assures. “If you call, I’m gonna be bright for you.”

If Cartalk’s “Las Manos” explores the place where being honest with yourself, and with somebody else, is difficult, but creates an opportunity for growth, and if Hannah Georgas’ “Pray it Away” explores a similar place, but one with so much more tension and uncertainty underneath it—what I’ve figured out is that “If You Call” is in the middle—not a convergence, but a slight overlap, or the spaces in between. It’s difficult, but it isn’t that uncertain. Georgas and Berninger, their vocals layered, ask the question, “Will you still love me even though I’m not what you thought,” and on “If You Call,” the one clear demand McMahon states is, “I don’t want you to compromise a lot to love me.” Love in all forms—platonic, romantic, etc—is about balance, and “If You Call,” among other things, is a stark, honest reflection, and response, to that balance, and how difficult it can be to maintain, but how, in all forms, it is the thing that provides that small flicker of hope. 

1- I would have never figured this out on my own, probably, but the loop is allegedly pulled from “Nowhere Nowhere Nowhere,” a 2018 song from the esoteric R&B performer Samoht; this is per the Pitchfork write up of the single. “Nowhere,” itself, is also worth a listen. 

2- I have gone into this in detail when I’ve written about Goodkin’s music before and we also discuss it on this episode of the Anehdonic Headphones podcast.

3- This is just a quick aside to say that I find the expression, “the early days of the pandemic” to b really funny.

4- I still find the five month roll out to Petals For Armor baffling, with the album being in big pieces, then as a whole, but also available in a special edition where it’s sequenced as three EPs. Either way, it’s a good, at times uneven, album that I really liked this year and was in the running for the ‘Albums of The Year’ list.

5- Alwyn, Swift’s partner, is credited as William Bowery in the liner notes. There was a lot of speculation as to who he was after the release of Folklore, but Swift shared the secret during the Disney+ “Long Pond Sessions” special released right before Thanksgiving.

6- I’ve written bout Desser a lot since I started this blog and his 1998 joint The Closer I Get is still one of my favorite albums of all time.

7- Just a quick aside to say that I think I have have been ‘wrong’ about what my favorite National song, “Pink Rabbits,” is actually about, but for me, it’s still about depression and I don’t really care what the real conceit of the song is.

8- “Motion Sickness” is famously about known sexual predator Ryan Adams.