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2020 should get its very own, specific poop emoji. That is clear. Having said that, there has been one constant bright spot from that dark, dreadful year: music.
So much of the music released last year fired on all cylinders at time when we needed it most. Songs resonated because their words were so indicative of the difficult times we’re (still) fighting through, while others were simply great bangers that we could imagine singing along to while in a club (when one opens) or shamelessly air guitaring to at a stadium (if one ever opens again).
Hans Christian Andersen once said: “When words fail, music speaks.” In so many instances, especially last year, the words within the music spoke volumes.
Here are just some of the most evocative lyrics from 2020 that moved us, crushed us, shocked us, given us hope, made us think, and even dream.
“And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / And ‘til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper / ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV / The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy.”
Run the Jewels’ RTJ4 got snubbed for Album of the Year, which has some people all riled up, and for good reason. It’s hard to pick just one song (never mind one lyric) that stood out on this record since each song is a tangled web of lyrical wordplay. Having said that, no song was more timely than “Walking in the Snow,” which dropped right after the fallout of the tragic death of George Floyd. No lyrics rattled us like this one especially, with protests and unfortunately some riots, serving as a backdrop to them. These words continue to resonate during a time when we’re taking a hard look at this country’s systematic racism and complacency.
“You’re tired now, lie down / I’ll be waitin’ to give you the good news / It might take patience / And if you don’t wake up / I’ll know you tried to / I wish you could see him / He looks just like you.”
Finneas’ “What They’ll Say About Us” is sort of the anthem for this tired, soul-sucking year — covering social injustice as well as those suffering from Covid-19. Focusing on the latter, Finneas was partly influenced to write this song after learning of Amanda Kloots (who documented her husband Nick Cordero’s battle with the virus) telling her followers and his on her Instagram account. Her hopefulness and openness throughout his battle moved Finneas to pen this. Cordero sadly passed away in July— leaving behind Kloots and their year-old son Elvis. The song ends with these final words and they cut like a knife.
“I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans / I’ve been sucking it in so long / That I’m bursting at the seams.”
And speaking of cutting things, Fiona Apple’s mighty return with Fetch the Bolt Cutters is the musical highlight of the year. I’d imagine Apple to take home some grammium zinc alloy this year. But that said, The Grammy’s are totally irrelevant and gave Steely Dan top honors over Nirvana’s Nevermind, so let’s leave the gramophone talk behind and focus on the electrifying, take no prisoners/sick of it all track, “Heavy Balloon,” off that album. There are so many lyrics that hit you like a Hacksaw Jim Duggan 2X4 but none better than this one.
“When it’s over, we do the leaving / We do the crying, we do the healing / And they say / 21 days ’til I don’t miss you / 21 days ’til I don’t miss you.”
Brian Fallon is notorious for creating brutally honest music with raw lyrics that leave a mark. He did it with Gaslight Anthem and continues to do so as a solo artist. His latest release, Local Honey, is no different; and this track, “21 Days,” finds the New Jersey native living very much in the present. He’s focusing on kicking the habit and the “well-documented” idea that it takes 21 days to do just that, be it quitting smoking or leaving a relationship behind.
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“Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad.”
Fallon’s Garden City forefather, The Boss, Mr. Bruce Springsteen, delivered a deeply felt album in the midst of chaos last year with Letters to You. In an album of standouts and lyrics that struck a chord (har har), “Rainmaker” — a track he wrote many, many years ago — sticks out like an orange thumb.
“Crossed the border to Morocco / Kashmir to Marrakesh / The lengths we had to go to then / To find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet.”
Pearl Jam have never shied away from politics and social issues at their live concerts and within their songs (“Bushleaguer” anyone?), and it’s spread all over their brutally brilliant track, “Quick Escape,” off their Gigaton record. The band takes on climate change as well as climate change denier #45 head-on with a fiery track about the end of civilization and the search for a better life somewhere else.
“Gaslighter / Big timer / Repeating all of the mistakes of your father.”
Here we go again! The chorus to the title track of The Chicks’ first album in 14 years, Gaslighter, is just brutal. And while it could apply to Donald Trump, the song is actually taking direct aim at Natalie Maines’ ex-husband Adrian Pasdar. Shots fired!
“I think I’ve seen this film before / And I didn’t like the ending / You’re not my homeland anymore / So what am I defendin’ now? / You were my town / Now I’m in exile seein’ you out.”
In a shear David Bowie meets Bing Crosby moment, Taylor Swift’s groundbreaking folklore album brought us the track, “Exile,” in which she’s paired with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. The unlikely pairing of “Bad Blood” and “Blood Bank” resulted in one of last year’s best tracks — a raw story of two ex’s recounting their failed relationship.
“If you don’t wanna see me dancing with somebody / If you wanna believe that anything could stop me / Don’t show up, don’t come out / Don’t start caring about me now / Walk away, you know how.”
Whereas “Exile” mourns a failed love affair, Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” is a celebration of a relationship ending. Getting her full Gloria Gaynor on, the singer tears into an ex-partner while tearing up the dance floor in the process.
“I see her online all the time / She said, ‘maybe I would like you better if you took your clothes off’ / I wanna see, and stop thinking.”
Matthew Healy is always such a wordsmith, but The 1975’s “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” really stands out because the lyrics transcend in this time of isolation and Zoom. Just ask a certain New Yorker reporter. (Ouch. Too soon?)
“I ride on that thang like the cops is behind me / I spit on his mic and now he tryna sign me.”
Cardi B’s hit “Wap” was flooded with feminine power and f-it-all lyrics. It’s hard to pick one line that resonates, but I’m going with this one because I think it’s the safest one to be published in this article. (Editor’s note: he’s right.)
“To do the right thing but without recompense / And then you did something wrong and you said it was great / And now you don’t know how you could ever complain / Because you’re all confused ’cause you want me to.”
The Strokes, “The Adults Are Talking.”
“The blind, collective mind of man is all they’re offering… / Then you bring a breath of life out of the emptiness / But man I thought I could fly / And when I hit the ground, it made a messed up sound.”
The Shins, “The Great Divide.”
“The sound created stars like me and you.”
Lady Gaga & Elton John, “Sine From Above.”
“Rage is a quiet thing / You think that you’ve tamed it / But it’s just lying in wait.”
Hayley Williams, “Simmer.”
“Drunken in Seattle / Two more Xans and without a paddle / I don’t remember your face / Or your hair, or your name, or your smile.”
Matt Maeson & Lana Del Rey, “Hallucinogenics.”
“You fall asleep during foreplay / ‘Cause the pills you take are more your forte / I’m not sticking around to watch you go down / Wanna be your lover, not your fucking mother.”
Soccer Mommy, “Circle the Drain.”
“Classy, Bougie, Rachet.”
Megan Thee Stallion, “Savage.”
“Everything’s growing in our garden / You don’t have to know that it’s haunted / The doctor put her hands over my liver / She told me my resentment’s getting smaller.”
Phoebe Bridgers, “Garden Song.”
“I run it like a silent movie / I run it like a violent song / Run it like a voice compelling / So right it can’t be wrong / If I’m a broken record, write it in the dust, babe / I’ll fill myself back up like I used to do.”
“You can’t fill the hole inside of you with money, girls, and cars / I’m so glad I never ever had a baby with you.”
Halsey, “You Should Be Sad.”
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