It’s been a minute. After taking break for a few weeks it makes me wonder how the hell I pulled off writing about Prince every day for six months straight. I miss it because I’m not listening to as much Prince now. I’ve got so much to say about the Sign O’ The Times vault tracks and, quite frankly, my wife just goes blank and she shuts down after about 30 seconds of me trying to convince her how cool it is that Prince recorded enough music to make at least four good albums in 1986. More on that in a minute…
Back for Year Three it’s a mixtape of my favorite songs of the year. As always, I’m just one middle-aged guy who is set in his ways. I don’t have a team of people listening to every new album every week. It’s just me here listening to the same shit I’ve always listened to and occasionally sampling the Hot Tracks on Apple Music before giving up in disgust after three or four songs. If you follow me you know Anderson .Paak is going to make this list. You’re going to see a lot of the same names this year you’ve seen in the past, but you’ll see some new names this year, too. If you’re thinking, “How can you make a list of the best songs of the year and not include (insert name here)?” that’s not what this is. This is my 2020 soundtrack. I don’t feel a need to include all genres here because I don’t enjoy all of them. Go somewhere else for that.
If you didn’t read the previous mixtapes, here is my rule:
- Only one song per artist. This does not include features, so some people appear on this list twice. I could easily grab multiple tracks by the same artists, but I wanted to dig deeper than that.
That’s my rule. I had a rule in past years that a song HAD to be released in that calendar year, but I’m pretty confident I’m violating that one this year. I’m adding a couple songs that were on albums released in 2020, but the singles may have dropped in late-2019. I’m honestly too lazy to research it. Just enjoy the songs and don’t question it.
I have one more thought before I get started. I’m hesitant to write something like this in early-December because there are still more than three weeks left in the year. As much as we all want to move on from this atrocious year and presidency we still have about 6% of 2020 remaining. In 2014 D’Angelo released Black Messiah – one of the best albums of the decade – on December 15. Just last year Free Nationals released one of the best albums of 2019 on December 13. These year-end lists come out too early. I hope we’ll still be blessed with some surprise greatness in the remaining few days of 2020, but I’m also going to make the same mistake everyone else does and post this before we get a chance to find out.
I’ll list the song in the order that I would if I was making a mixtape. Let’s do this.
Turn Me Up – Jose James feat. Aloe Blacc
I’ve been listening to Jose James for the better part of a decade now, and in that time few have been able to put out music that I enjoy with his consistency. He has a one-in-a-million voice that can make any song sound amazing, and he possesses amazing style and taste, so the music he writes and performs is always good regardless of genre. He’s released albums influenced by jazz, R&B, soul, funk and rock (to name a few) as well as Bill Withers and Billie Holiday cover albums and I’ve liked all of it. My favorite has remained 2013’s No Beginning No End, which had a neo-soul vibe. You can imagine my excitement when it was announced that No Beginning No End 2 would drop in 2020. While the name is the same, NBNE2 isn’t so much a sequel to the original as it is a testament to how much James has added to his musical repertoire since the first one. It’s an excellent album, and the track I chose to represent it and kick off the 2020 Mixtape is the infectiously upbeat “Turn Me Up.” I’ve gone back to “Turn Me Up” dozens of times this year to improve my mood. Since 2020 has been our trip through the darkest timeline I’ve needed music like this to help me get through it. If “Turn Me Up” doesn’t make you get up our of your seat and dance, at the very least it’s impossible to listen without tapping your toes and nodding your head along with it. Bonus points for the catchy, unique “turn me up right now, baby let me funk it down with you” chromatic vocal run that James repeats multiple times in the final 30 seconds of the track. This song is good for your soul and we need a lot of that right now.
Highway – St. Panther
This is your warning: Get in on St. Panther immediately because this woman is a rocket ship. Many thanks to Vinyl Me, Please for making her their “Rising Artist” earlier this year because without them I would’ve never discovered her EP These Days. I once wrote that Daniela Bojorges-Giraldo – a.k.a. St. Panther – sounds like the love child of Missy Elliott and Anderson .Paak. First off, that’s high praise and she deserves it. Not gonna lie, though. I think we all have a subconscious need to compare artists based on criteria like gender, race, age, etc. In her case, I really put Missy Elliott in there because of some kind of need to compare her to a woman. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some Missy in her music. They can both sing and spit with equal ease and skill. Where Missy’s sound was heavily influenced by Timbaland, I hear a lot more organic Southern California Anderson .Paak in St. Panther’s music than I do Missy. .Paak can also sing or rap and blurs the lines between the two like nobody I’ve heard before. St. Panther does the same and “Highway” is a fantastic example. She drops a few blistering verses over a crazy funky drum beat and bass line. The video is equally creative. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
YUUUU – Busta Rhymes feat. Anderson .Paak
Damn near every year someone surprises me and delivers something that I had no idea I needed. A few years back Bruno Mars made an entire album (24K Magic) of New Jack R&B, a genre I had dismissed for decades, and I loved it. In 2019 Busta Rhymes appeared on Anderson .Paak’s remix of “Bubblin'” and I thought, “Oh shit, it’s Busta! I haven’t seen him in years. What a nice surprise.” This year he dropped Extinction Level Event 2, his first album in nearly a decade. Much like Jose James above, this is a sequel to my favorite Busta album – 1998’s original E.L.E. – so I was as excited about this album as I have been about a hip hop album in a long time. It exceeded expectations. Busta still has his fastball. My favorite track on the album happens to be a collaboration with my favorite artist currently consistently making music, Anderson .Paak. The two of them combine here to make something wildly unique. We all know Busta has the ability to flow like few others, but .Paak’s delivery on the first verse is mind-bending. I overuse the word unique, but AP gives us a flow on the first verse that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. That’s just the warmup for Busta raising the bar even higher with his off-beat flow and signature rapid fire second verse. Add some spacey vocal effects and music and you’ve got one of the best tracks of 2020.
Time Alone With You – Jacob Collier feat. Daniel Caesar
I can’t pinpoint the date, so I’m gonna say it was late-summer when I was on one of my typical bored during quarantine YouTube deep dives. I was watching Tiny Desk concerts and was floored by a dude who looked like he was in high school playing every instrument and singing something smooth and funky. I frantically Googled the name Jacob Collier and found that the song was from an upcoming album that had Volume 3 in the title. Where were volumes one and two? I spent the next few days obsessing over a 26-year-old (I swear he looks ten years younger) with a background in jazz. Before long I came across “Time Alone With You.” By law, anything that features Daniel Caesar is already dope, so I knew it would be good before I even pressed play. The track starts with a lazy drum beat reminiscent of Questlove’s work on Voodoo. Another plus. Caesar’s vocals were on point, as always. Then Collier’s layered background vocals dropped in sounding like Manhattan Transfer with the pitch turned down and I swear I tilted my head like a dog who just heard a whistle. The chorus breaks in sounding like Alvin and the Chipmunks are harmonizing with wild stops and starts like someone put their hand down and manually stopped a record on a spinning turntable. 3-5 times a year I text my brother with a YouTube link and the comment, “Holy fuck, have you heard this?” This was one of those songs. Freaky, next-level R&B.
C-Side – Khruangbin & Leon Bridges
Some artists take their time and some strike while the iron is hot. Houston psychedelic funk trio Khruangbin did not rest on their laurels after the success of 2018’s Con Todo El Mundo. 2020 was the year of Khruangbin and I guarantee you heard something by them even if you don’t realize it. I heard Khruangbin in beer commercials this year. They dropped their third album, Mordechai – in June. They just released a mixtape for the British LateNightTales series. They were supposed to tour this year with Tame Impala, and I was going to see that tour in Milwaukee in May until 2020 happened. Khruangbin wasn’t scheduled to open at the Milwaukee show, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, Khruangbin also teamed up with fellow Texan Leon Bridges for an EP. Texas Sun is loaded with laid back greatness despite its painfully short 21-minute runtime. My only complaint is that there isn’t more music. If Khruangbin has a weakness it’s that they don’t implement typical vocals. Most of what they do is intentionally light on vocals, which is great if you’re like me and dig instrumental music. They bolster that potential weakness for four tracks on Texas Sun, fronted by all-world vocalist Leon Bridges. The result is magic. I dig “C-Side” because it’s more uptempo and funkier than the others, but the entire EP is more than worth your 21 minutes.
Breathe Deeper – Tame Impala
After a five-year wait and a series of teases in 2019 that included two singles and a Saturday Night Live appearance, Tame Impala finally delivered his/their fourth album The Slow Rush on Valentine’s Day this year. As is the case for me with all Tame Impala albums, it’s another classic “just drop the needle on the record and let it play” album. Tame Impala doesn’t just make music. He takes you on a sonic journey. It’s always difficult for me to pick a favorite Tame Impala track because, maybe more than any artist I know, I don’t cherry pick tracks. I listen to the entire album. I’m honestly not even sure I can name a single song on four albums. My initial impression when I heard “Breathe Deeper” was that it was clearly inspired by the Hall & Oates classic “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” and that’s why I dig it so much. Most of the reviews I saw of The Slow Rush dinged it and said it’s not quite up to par with Tame Impala’s last few albums. I disagree. I think it’s the next step in his progression from psychedelic rock on the first album to trippy disco on the third album. The Slow Rush takes us a step further out in to space. Just put on a pair of good headphones and appreciate everything happening sonically on this song and you’ll wonder what the critics were talking about. I’m here for whatever Tame Impala does.
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – Amy Winehouse
Here’s a fun fact: I can’t hear this without tearing up. You read that right. I play the ridiculous Christmas song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and my eyes well up with tears. Not because of the song. It’s Amy Winehouse. I was searching for new holiday music a week or two ago on Apple Music and this track appeared on my screen like a gift from heaven. I yelled, “Oh shit, a new Amy Winehouse track,” to my wife and she ran to my desk. I don’t know what it was, but I spent the entire 132 seconds trying to hide the fact that I was fighting back tears. Amy Fucking Winehouse was just that good. Not only was she blessed with one of the great voices of our generation, but she was peerless in her ability to never sing a song the same way twice. She could improvise like nobody I’ve ever heard. It’s such a silly ass song and she crushes it. I’m so moved by her voice and still devastated by what a loss she was that I couldn’t fight back tears while I listened. I still can’t. Don’t play “Back to Black” or “Love is a Losing Game” in front of me. I’m a disaster. Rest in peace, Amy Winehouse. We adore you.
Ooh Laa – John Legend
Speaking of one of the great voices of our generation, John Legend released an album this year that I loved. Bigger Love is my favorite John Legend album since his criminally underrated 2006 sophomore album Once Again. While I’ve enjoyed Legend’s music throughout, Bigger Love is his most consistent album in over a decade. “Ooh Laa” is old school soul music right out of the gate with a 6/8 feel, but when the beat drops you realize that the melody is triplets over a 4/4 beat. The thumping bass is a fresh twist that gives this classic soul jam a newer vibe. John Legend does John Legend stuff throughout the song, going from his signature full voice with that little bit of cracking for character, then sliding flawlessly in to his buttery smooth falsetto. “Ooh Laa” is a gorgeous start to one of my favorite albums of 2020.
Dragonball Durag – Thundercat
It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I started sensing a theme. We’ve got a lot of established eclectic artists making smooth music. Tame Impala, Khruangbin, and Thundercat all have a similar vibe. I guess I was in the mood to chill in 2020. If you’re looking for a bass virtuoso who checks a lot of other boxes, look no further than Thundercat. Neo-yacht rock/funk music? Check. Lyrics that sound like they’re written by Smoove B? Check. A Lonely Island-esque video that looks like it was shot on a VHS tape? Check. Also, his name is Thundercat. Seriously, this song is ridiculous for multiple reasons. The lyrics are absurd. “I may be covered in cat hair but I still smell good.” “Do you like the way my ice drips in the light?” “You don’t have to like my video games or my comic books, but baby girl, how do I look in my durag?” It’s also ridiculous because it’s just so damned good. That combination of Thundercat bass line and falsetto wins every time. The world needs more Thundercat.
I Can’t Breathe – H.E.R.
In the midst of 2020’s ugliness there were some silver linings. Musicians couldn’t perform live so they found new ways to bring music to us online. I spent many nights early in quarantine enjoying DJ sets from Questlove, D Nice, Talib Kweli, and DJ Jazzy Jeff. I’ve always wanted to attend the annual Roots Picnic in Philly, but it’s always late-May/early-June and late-May is also the time my mom and I celebrate our birthdays. I wouldn’t just leave my family for Philly and skip out on that…actually, I would if D’Angelo was there. This year The Roots Picnic was held online, which I’m sure wasn’t the same for everyone involved, but I was thrilled to have some cool musical performances to watch online. Plus it was co-hosted by Michelle Obama. I’m ashamed to admit it, but for a while I didn’t get H.E.R. I saw her perform a few times and I just wasn’t hearing it. In my opinion she lacked energy. I wasn’t feeling it. Then I saw her stirring performance of “I Can’t Breathe” during The Roots Picnic and my opinion changed. So much soul and pain from a 23-year-old. That led me to go back in to her discography and give her the attention and respect she deserves. She’s a talented young artist wise beyond her years and someone I look forward to hearing more from. Unfortunately, the lyrical content of “I Can’t Breathe” is evergreen in America. It also solemnly and respectfully captures the post-George Floyd atmosphere in mid-2020. I’d call it the Anthem of 2020, if it weren’t for…
Lockdown – Anderson .Paak
I dig AP for a million different reasons. One of them is that he can rock a song like “Suede” and still have the talent and credibility to be taken seriously on a song like “Lockdown.” The above-mentioned H.E.R. song is beautiful, but it doesn’t capture the entire 2020 experience like “Lockdown.” The music is subdued yet somehow hopeful at the same time. The message conveys frustration and determination. In mid-June I had the privilege to join a Black Lives Matter rally here in my hometown with a few thousand other people. We masked up and marched downtown past the county courthouse and police department. We listened to countless speakers encouraging peaceful protest. We were joined by the Green Bay Chief of Police. The organizers requested that we don’t have uniformed police present and promised that the people could police themselves, and we did. In 44 years here I’ve never felt a greater sense of belonging and togetherness in my hometown. It was beautiful to see people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, and religions join together and march peacefully. These past few months when I get frustrated and want to bring that feeling back I just press play on “Lockdown” and it brings me right back. The perfect anthem for 2020 and the fight for necessary progress in the midst of a pandemic.
Paper Thin – Lianne La Havas
Lianne La Havas caught my attention in the mid-2010’s when she collaborated with Prince and appeared on multiple tracks on his Art Official Age album. I’ve been a fan ever since, but she outdid herself this year. Her album Lianne La Havas is yet another 2020 album full of laid back music, but this one is different from the others listed above. Where the aforementioned albums have funky bass lines or spacey vibes, La Havas simply puts on a singer/songwriter master class throughout this album. She’s had her heart broken and she puts that vulnerability on display beautifully throughout this melancholy album. Her songwriting and musicianship are on point, but her vocal range is what blows me away on this album. You can feel her pain, best displayed on this stunning performance from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where she goes from quiet whispers to belting out notes I wasn’t sure were humanly possible. Prince had countless side projects and protégées in his 40-year music career, and I’m aware that this is hyperbole, but I don’t believe any of them made music as good as Lianne La Havas did on this album. If you prefer funk you’ll say The Time was better. If you like jazz maybe you’re a fan of Madhouse. Top to bottom I struggle to think of an album from a Prince protégée that I enjoy more. Respect.
Magnificent – Black Thought
Somebody has to bring some fire to this mixtape before it’s over. Who better to do it than the GOAT? I’ve pretty much left hip hop behind at this point. The genre I once swore by has mostly gone in a direction that I don’t want to follow. I’ll also say this a million times: I’m aware that middle-aged white dudes from Northern Wisconsin aren’t the target audience. I don’t begrudge anyone in hip hop for doing what they’re doing. It’s just not for me…one could argue that it never was, but that didn’t stop me from loving it. I just don’t hear the skill I used to. People I considered wack back in the day could rap circles around most of the rappers I hear today. I remember when Nelly came out and I thought his shit was so corny and now his stuff from the 90’s sounds like Rakim compared to most of what I’m hearing today. Even people who really can rap like Nicki Minaj and Wale seem to dumb it down because skills don’t sell. That’s not to say that I hate everything. I love Rapsody. Childish Gambino stopped rapping two albums ago but I love what he’s doing. For the most part the hop hop I listen to now is the same underground 90’s backpacker Rawkus shit that I did 20 years ago. Mos. Kweli. Common. The Roots. I believe Black Thought is the greatest rapper of all-time. If you’ve ever seen him live you know I’m right. I’ve seen The Roots seven times and every time they finish their shows with a scorching 30(ish)-minutes of Black Thought rapping so hard he sweats through his clothes. There’s nothing like a Roots show. The only thing Thought doesn’t have to his credit is record sales like Jay-Z, 2Pac, Biggie, Nas, Eminem, and a few others who typically occupy people’s Top Five lists. As much as I love The Roots, I believe that the kind of music they play hurts Black Thought in this argument. He has the legendary ten minute Funkmaster Flex freestyle that blew up the internet, but it’s difficult to point to a line of hits that Black Thought rapped on like you can with those other guys. What he has is 25 years of amazing tracks like “Thought @ Work” and “Double Trouble” that didn’t sell millions of copies but still prove my point. It also doesn’t help that The Roots’ last album is over six years old and Thought hardly got a chance to rap on it. I always wondered what Black Thought could’ve done on an album produced by DJ Premier. Fortunately, what we’ve gotten in the past few years is three Black Thought mixtapes. More specifically, in 2020 we got the brilliant Streams of Thought Vol. 3: Cane and Abel. Just when I thought I was out on hip hop Black Thought reminded me what I love about it. There are so many amazing tracks to choose from, but “Magnificent” is my favorite because of the sick beat and bass line. Most rappers seem to age and fade from relevance, but Thought just gets better with age. Those other cats I listed above deserve their spots on the list and a couple of them aren’t here to add to their legacies (rest in peace Pac and Biggie), but while some of them have faded a bit in recent years, Black Thought was busy making the best album of 2020.
Power Fantastic – Prince
I have to qualify my last statement: Black Thought gave us the best new album of 2020. The best album of 2020, hands down, was actually recorded more than three decades ago. That would be the Super Deluxe Edition of Prince’s 1987 magnum opus Sign O’ The Times. Not only did the original material get a much needed remaster, but the Prince Estate released an unprecedented amount of vault material. 45 unreleased vault tracks, 18 live tracks from a 1987 concert, and a DVD of his 1987 New Year’s Eve Party at a brand new Paisley Park featuring a brief appearance by Miles Davis in their only live performance together. As you can imagine, this collection has taken up the majority of my music listening time since its release in September. Most of that time has been spent on the 45 vault tracks. Prince’s vault material during that era is better than most people’s best music. The three vault LPs cover such a wide range of music. A few of my personal standouts are the funk workout “Emotional Pump.” “It Be’s Like That Sometimes” is a pleasant walk in the park and could’ve been a top 40 hit. “Witness 4 the Prosecution” is a banger with an organ and gospel choir. The vault version of “Strange Relationship” is an improvement over the already great album version. “Blanche” is – to borrow from Prince’s lyrics – a song about a girl named Blanche. “Adonis and Bathsheba” and “Crucial” are both classic soul slow jams with some of that “Adore” DNA in them. I could continue. The true masterpiece here is “Power Fantastic.” An epic power ballad and a rare opportunity to hear The Revolution in studio with Prince shortly before they disbanded. Not only is it a gorgeous song, but you get to hear Prince giving them direction in the studio before and during the song. It’s amazing to hear Prince say, “Just trip, there are no mistakes this time. This is the fun track,” and then listen to a group of musicians play something truly one-of-a-kind and gorgeous. The track was recorded in Prince’s new home studio in March of 1986. The studio wasn’t large enough to fit the entire band, so members were scattered throughout the house listening to Prince sing his vocals and give cues from the control room. Lisa Coleman played piano upstairs. Bobby Z played drums downstairs. Wendy Melvoin on guitar. Eric Leeds on flute. Atlanta Bliss on trumpet. The song was written by Prince along with Coleman and Melvoin and it makes you wonder what they could’ve done with more time together. But, Prince was constantly reinventing and not content to stay in one place for too long. Soon after this The Revolution were no more, but their stamp was left all over Sign O’ The Times, especially the new version with the vault material. I realize it’s cheating to put a song from 1987 on my 2020 mixtape, but as long as the Prince Estate continues giving us fresh vault material, you’ll keep seeing it on my mixtapes. After all, it’s new to us.
We Shall Overcome – Bill Frisell
I need something to represent all of the jazz that I listened to in 2020. Most of that jazz was pre-1965 so there’s no place for it on a 2020 mixtape. However, the more I listen to jazz, the more I give modern jazz musicians a chance. Ambrose Akinmusire, Joel Ross, and Robert Glasper are a few of my favorites, but I came across a review of Bill Frisell’s album Valentine and I had to check it out. I enjoyed it so much I went straight to my local record store, The Exclusive Company, and bought the vinyl. The trio of Frisell on guitar, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Rudy Royston on drums isn’t breaking any new musical ground here. They just deliver an immensely enjoyable album to grab a scotch and chill to. It’s exactly what I needed in 2020. I chose “We Shall Overcome” not only because it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album, but because it’s exactly the kind of optimism we need to close out this mixtape and enter 2021. We shall overcome Covid. We shall overcome Trump. We shall finally overcome the systemic racism that has kept too many people down. Chins up, people. We’re gonna get through this.
That’s it for the 2020 mixtape. If you’d like to listen to this mixtape you can do so here via Apple Music. I hope this music puts a smile on your face. If you think I missed something drop a note in the comments section. I hope you’re healthy, happy, and finding some peace. Best wishes this holiday season and a sincere happy new year to you in 2021.