Best of 2020 Awards
As per Spotify, I spent a full month’s worth of time listening to music this year (4,380 minutes). This doesn’t account for the additional time listening to terrestrial radio like KEXP and WFUV. Time well spent I say. 2020 called for a deep level of introspection given everything we have been through together, and music is always my access to that introspection. The vast majority of my listening centered around getting lost and finding time to disappear.
I like to wrap up the year by reflecting on which songs and artists made their mark on me. These awards are not a reflection of the commercial music listening landscape, but merely selections that stood out in my personal listening silo, the ones that made me go back for repeat listens. Enjoy my friends.
Track of the Year Award: “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd
Though this track was released in November of 2019, it really settled in fully in 2020. Anyone who grew up in the 80s got their nostalgia fix on first listen. This is one of those rare songs that gets better the more spins you give it, and it's of no surprise that Max Martin was the co-writer. If you question the undeniability of this song, consider that Blinding Lights is the ninth most-streamed song on Spotify OF-ALL-TIME, after barely over a year since release.
The show Stranger Things called and wants its soundtrack back.
- The Magic: That synth hook. So simple, yet so effective. There are so many elements in this production that I’m a sucker for. The ridiculously simple kick-snare pattern keeps you locked in and stays out of the way of what's important. I love the writing approach here, a shortened verse 2 followed by the sole pre-chorus of the song, a clever way to keep things fresh and get you back quickly to the chorus.
The Welcome Back Award: “Identical” by Phoenix
Phoenix’s last release was back in 2017 and I had sort of lost track of them. This is one of those bands whose early work I fall in love with and never really pay attention to subsequent releases. I would be totally content listening to “Lisztomania” and “1901” on repeat and never needing another track from this group. Then came “Identical”, appearing on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s new movie On the Rocks.
- The Magic: Verse 2, starting at 1:17 with the slowly ascending synth drone riding underneath the vocals. These subtle production choices are where Phoenix always wins out.
The Soundtrack To Creativity Award: “We Watched You Disappear” — by Hammock
Hammock is Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson, an American two-member ambient/post-rock band from Nashville. This duo has a long history of putting out beautiful recordings, however, I only discovered them via mood playlist in the pre-Covid winter months. This was my most-listened-to-song of 2020, which was a reflection of it being a go-to track during my morning meditation sessions. This composition got me through the most anxious moments of this year, and there were many. I am forever grateful to artists and all they give to us listeners. If it weren’t for this track I don’t know how I would have kept it all together.
*The Magic: Put on headphones, sit somewhere quiet, close your eyes, and let go. You will feel different afterward, even if just a little, and that's enough.
Throwback Track Of The Year Award: “Lazy Eye” by Silverspun Pickups
“Lazy Eye” was the 3rd single from the band’s debut album Carnavas. I got heavily back into this track and it holds up incredibly well since its release way back in 2006 (where did the time go?). It’s not a surprise that I’m nostalgic for this one as it taps into my 15-year-old self and all his Smashing Pumpkins feels. The clean-toned, circular guitar riff is so satisfying that I could not resist busting out my Les Paul to learn it.
*The Magic: The song is fully instrumental from 3:24 to 5:31, leaving you wondering if you are still listening to the same song before it brings you back to the lyric briefly at the end to close things out. The long lyrical gap is mesmerizing, beautiful, and a true place to escape to. If you want to disappear from the world for a few minutes, put on this song, and get lost in it. You will thank me later.
Late To The Party Award: “The Wolves” by Mandolin Orange
As I was putting this list together in front of a wood stove late one night in an upstate NY cabin, looking out at the moon, this track came on in the background.
When the vocal first came in sounded a little like Fire & Rain by James Taylor, which is what caught my ear. Something about this song just felt so right, familiar, and comforting. The day after the initial discovery, I did a deep dive and found their Spotify Sessions cover of Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Amsterdam”, a personal favorite. It left me wondering how I had missed out on Andrew & Emily over the last few years.
*The Magic: Simplicity. This track won’t blow you away, but it will make you feel like everything is alright and as it should be. Everything and everyone on this track are right in the pocket. The short guitar solo after chorus 1 has a little Mark Knopfler to it, which always feels right.
Best Cover Song Award: “Drive” (Cars cover) by Soccer Mommy
I had absolutely no appreciation for this classic song prior to hearing Sophie Allison’s version of The Cars classic from 1984. A great cover song makes you truly hear the lyrics for the 1st time, or in a totally different light. *Side note: Soccer Mommy has to be one of my all-time favorite monikers.
*The Magic: All 4:30 seconds of it honestly. Simplifying the original down to the strumming of 4 open chords on electric guitar along with some choice short delay vocal treatment is mic drop worthy.
The Diamond In The Rough Award: “Leaves” By Danny Malone
The Austin Chronicle calls Danny “ Austin’s answer to Elliot Smith…”
I first heard this song in 2014 during an intimate performance on New York’s lower east side at Rockwood Music Hall. Reimagined and re-released in February on the We the Tigress, They the Wildebeast album, this track sums up everything you need to know about Danny and exemplifies his storytelling prowess. No one captures the emotional complexity of relationships quite as honestly as he does.
It actually offends me that Danny isn’t more well-known at this point. Go back and listen to his “Balloons” record from 2013 (incredible songs with all percussion sounds recorded in a haunted castle), then make your way to his Speedreamer EP, an impressive lo-fi four-track recording which is as close as you will get to feeling like you are on heavy drugs.
The Magic: The lyrical cleverness over the 4 verses is just songwriting perfection. Tying in the last phrase of chorus 1 into the first phrase of the next verse is what separates the good from the great.
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Album Of The Year Award: “Gray” by Byland
I’ve had a soft spot for Byland since her 2018 Desert Days album release when I stumbled upon the track “Albuquerque”. Alie Renee Byland’s newly released, cinematic folk album “Gray” is indicative of precisely what I mean when I coach artists on focusing on their evolution as an artist rather than chasing numbers and the business. The maturity in writing, production, and performance between albums is dramatic and undeniable. This is everything that is right with a patient artist development approach. Great records are often born from what you are willing to leave alone.
The vulnerability of this album creates a world, pulls you in, and holds you. Making mental health a priority is a focal point of GRAY, with topics like anxiety, codependency, and fear of inadequacy at the forefront. No wonder it resonates so perfectly this year. This is one of those slow burn albums that may take a year for people to fully appreciate, but the kindling has officially been lit for Byland.
The Magic: “Passed Me By” is a perfect album opener, and from 2:49 onward you get a glimpse into Byland’s musical maturity when the song’s previously palatable hook “Time passed me by, passed me by” is now uncomfortably dissonant.
On the track “Mine”, from 2:44 to the song’s close, the ascending production of Nathan Yaccino and guest artist Abby Gunderson’s string arrangements pull us up to one of the album’s many emotional peaks.
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Patrick Ermlich is a life-long artist guide, consultant, creative director, and CMO of Gramophone Media.