RIFF REWIND 2020: Run the Jewels, Taylor Swift and Poppy

Taylor Swift evermore, Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift, courtesy: Beth Garrabrant.

Way, way back in 2018, long before the sickness came, I had the crazy idea to list my five (or so) songs of every year from 1967 to the then-present day of 2018. Amazingly, I actually did it. It was a lot of years and a lot of songs, but it left me with the greatest Spotify playlist of all time.

Then, without my brilliant theme, I had to keep the column going with a different theme every week. It’s been less good to this very day. But, at the end of 2019, with no idea what madness was ahead of me, I decided to go back to the good old days and add another year to that original theme. It includes Gary Clark Jr., Lizzo and Babymetal, all on the same list.

Now we’ve finally, mercifully reached the end of 2020. This is the last column of the longest year in human history, so let’s celebrate by tacking another year to that long-ago original column theme. Which is surprisingly hard! This was the best year for new music in a really long time, with a lot of great albums like Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters or Fantastic Negrito’s Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? that I’ve listened to dozens of times but don’t have that one song that got stuck in my head for a solid week. And my major qualification for songs in the annual lists is that it spent at least seven consecutive days on repeat in my brain at some point.

So join me as we make the name “Rewind” make sense once again with my five favorite songs of 2020. Let’s see how long it takes for me to get to Taylor Swift.

Daði & Gagnamagnið — “Think About Things”

In 2019 I wrote a column mocking Eurovision finalists and, since apparently nobody in Europe can grasp the concept of satire, it caused the entire continent to troll me on Twitter for months. Then they continued to troll me ever since. I just got the latest round this month, a full year and a half later.

So obviously I did it again in 2020, but rather than just the finalists I individually insulted nearly every single would-be Eurovision contender. In three parts.

It’s nearly all the songs because, well, “Think About Things” was one of the Eurovision songs, and I just put it on my list of favorite songs of the year. It’s so good. I mean, it’s incredibly good. Even the video is great. It’s way too good for Eurovision, if we’re being honest. Daði Freyr probably dodged a bullet.

Seriously, I can’t even count the times I’ve put this video on to cheer myself up this year. You owe it to yourself to listen


If you told me in 2015 that I’d be putting the weird YouTube girl with the surrealist videos who sang “Everybody Wants To Be Poppy” on my top five songs of the year, list I’d have called you crazy. I like some pretty weird stuff but even I have standards.

By 2018 I gave serious consideration to making “X” an Honorable Mention, back when I did more than my requisite five. It was a weird curveball at the end of Am I A Girl? where the mostly pop album just briefly descended into madness. And I love madness. But at the time I assumed it was just another surrealist bit.

Then, in January, I Disagree came out and… yeah, wow. It’s a whole album of super grindy industrial metal, like Marilyn Manson before he got old and lame, but with her normal bubblegum pop voice. It’s so good. I have no idea what happened to get her from there to here but I’m grateful.

Run the Jewels — “JU$T”

RTJ4 was the best album of 2020 according to me (and RIFF) so obviously my favorite song on the album is on the list. I mean, how could it not? I could make three of these five songs RTJ4 numbers if I wouldn’t be breaking one of my two rules.

That said, it was hard not to include “Walking in the Snow” just because it’s by far the most impactful song on the album, and was by far the best part of Killer Mike and El-P’s TV performance. It hits the hardest and best encapsulates the resurgent civil rights movement this year brought us along with all the death. But every song on the album has a powerful message, and “JU$T” has a Zack de la Rocha verse, so it wins.

Taylor Swift — “cardigan”

It was almost exactly a year ago, in my best songs of 2019 column, that I called out Taylor Swift as “…pop song[s] by a young woman with a carefully cultivated image, written and recorded by a team from the label for maximum marketability among the target demographic.”

Well played, Taylor Swift. Consider me owned.

Like Poppy a couple entries ago, Swift is a former pop singer who took a hard turn into a more interesting genre. But unlike Poppy’s foray into the heavy, Swift used the lockdown to reinvent herself as a folk singer-songwriter by writing, recording, and releasing an album full of songs that are fairly simple musically but with lyrics that show a mastery not just of allegory but of the English language in general. There’s a depth and sly undercurrent to every song on the album that, frankly, I did not see coming.

Considering that she’s since released another folk album I’m really, really hoping this is permanent. She clearly has a lot of talent, and she shouldn’t spend one more day wasting it by trying to make some record exec rich with another focus-grouped song.

Gangstagrass — “Freedom”

This single came out for Juneteenth, but as per tradition, these are listed in order of the album release, so it’s most recent. It’s so recent, in fact, that I haven’t even written about it yet. (Spoiler alert, more on Gangstagrass is coming soon.)

I was only recently introduced to their music and by itself that was the silver lining of 2020. I never even considered the theoretical possibility of combining hip-hop and bluegrass [OK, here’s a Gokhman note: Judah and the Lion have already done this from the bluegrass side and even named an album about it] but it’s the best combination I’ve heard in ages. Since it appeared on my radar I basically can’t stop listening to its latest album, No Time For Enemies. It’s front-to-back amazing.

So, yes, for all the death and destruction and other death, there was a bright spot to 2020: It was arguably the best year for music in the 21st century so far. Here’s hoping that trend continues into future, non-apocalyptic years.

Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.

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