2020 in Music: Blue Jai’s Top 5

Most years I am pretty clear about which songs constitute my Top 5 for the year – this is, after all, the only list I produce with any regularity in which the proviso is that any song included on my list has to have been released in the current year.

My problem with my Top 5 for 2020 is that when the world turned upside down (and particularly when it then turned in on itself during the first lockdown), what I listened to ended up being firmly and unashamedly rooted in nostalgia. In the face of such enormous unknowns, I sought refuge in the songs from my teenage years and before. I found myself listening to plenty of songs with fuzzy guitar riffs like Ratcat’s “That Ain’t Bad”, cruisy tunes like The Badloves’ “Green Limousine”, heading back to the inimitable groove of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” or going back even further in time to songs like Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”.

It wasn’t accidental, and my trips down memory lane definitely helped me navigate this most troublesome of years.

But there came a point when I had to venture back onto the airwaves and Spotify Playlists I know and love, to connect with the myriad of new releases that artists, also in lockdown, have created in 2020. And from those rich pickings, I present Blue Jai’s Top 5 Songs for 2020.

“Low” by Chet Faker

Just because I feel low, right now

It doesn’t mean all that I’ve got has run out…

I suspect from the moment I heard the opening lines of this song for the first time I knew it would be my favourite of the year. Chet Faker (also known as Nick Murphy) is back, and this song could not have come at a better time. The production on this track is sublime and the lyrics somehow sum up everything about 2020 – I love everything about “Low”. More please, Chet Faker.

“Je disparais dans tes bras” by Christine and the Queens

The entire La Vita Nuova EP from Christine and the Queens is brilliant, right from the plaintive opening song “People I’ve been Sad”, as is the accompanying short film (which I’ve included above, since looking at individual songs on their own doesn’t make as much sense as seeing the entire artistic vision). I probably could have picked any of the songs from this latest offering from multi-lingual Héloïse Letissier and her crew, but I ended up picking “Je disparais dans tes bras” over the title track, “La Vita Nuova” (featuring Caroline Polachek) upon discovering it was one of the songs I listened to most on Spotify this year. If you’ve got a spare fifteen minutes – no, scratch that – find yourself fifteen minutes to watch this film, shot in the beautiful Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris, and immerse yourself in epic choreography and wonderful music.

“Dribble” by SYCCO

SYCCO (which is, of course, pronounced “Psycho”, a moniker apparently inspired by all things psychedelic rather than psychotic) is a Brisbane teenager who, judging from this release, is one to watch. “Dribble” came about when SYCCO was trying to make sense of someone sleep talking, attempting to derive meaning from words that were probably entirely random. The end result is great: catchy melody, driving beat, great song. This one got plenty of airplay at our house and in the car.

“Gold Dust Woman” by Julia Holter

OK, OK…so Julia Holter actually recorded this in 2012, but she released it in 2020, so I’m going to count it in this year’s Top 5. Besides, it’s such a great cover of Fleetwood Mac’s original song that I can’t not let this one through (you can thank me later — the link will take you to audio, not video, but it’s totally worth it). Holter takes Stevie Nicks’ lyrics to an otherworldly place and I honestly couldn’t love this more. Fingers and toes crossed we get from some new music from Julia Holter in the near future; she’s a class act.

“Are You Even Real?” by James Blake

There’s a lot to like about this track from James Blake, who I think is one of the most interesting recording artists on the planet right now. At its core “Are You Even Real?” is a love song, but as with many of Blake’s songs it’s not always easy to tell upon first listen exactly what headspace he’s in: the music and lyrics don’t always line up precisely with the feel of the song. Blake’s “Don’t Miss It” (from 2019) is another great example of this – Cillian Murphy described the lyrics to that song as being “either profoundly sad or profoundly hopeful – perhaps both at the same time”, and that sums up the way I feel about much of James Blake’s music. Ultimately, however, for me one line in “Are You Even Real?” stands out, and is incredibly beautiful:

She runs her hands through my imagination…

I suspect that’s exactly what all great artists do to us when they sing and play, don’t they? And that’s as real as it gets.

So that’s my Top 5 for the year…but here’s some of the best of my nostalgic listening from years gone by to keep your toes tapping and your mood upbeat as we navigate the 2020 Season Finale.

Top 5 Throwbacks for 2020

  • “Red Dress” by the Sugababes (2005)
  • “Dancing Barefoot” by Patti Smith (1979)
  • “She Has to Be Loved” by Jenny Morris (1989)
  • “Peace Frog” by The Doors (1970)
  • “Close But Not Quite” by Everything is Recorded, featuring Sampha

(That last track is brilliant by the way…interweaving Sampha’s ethereal voice with the Curtis Mayfield sample takes it to another level).

So there we have it folks! Blue Jai’s Top 5 in Music for 2020.

Stay tuned for my Top 5 in Books and on Screen, coming soon…

2019 in Song

OK folks…strap yourselves in — it’s time for my Top 5 in music for 2019!

Only rule that applies to this list is that the song had to be released in 2019. No more mucking around — let’s jump straight in.

1. Harmony Hall Vampire Weekend

Who can fail to be happy when one of their favourite bands releases their first single in aaaaaages on your actual birthday? This was a present I didn’t expect and one that kept giving the whole year long. I love everything about this song, from the catchy beat to the genre-jumping progression of muscial styles — especially when they go from what sounds like a classical piano solo into sliding country guitar. For what it’s worth, the snake in the video is super cute, too.

2. The Barrel Aldous Harding

I’m not going to lie — I have no idea what the lyrics to the song are about, but this was one of the tunes I found myself listening to over and again in 2019. It’s whimsical and somehow magical and proves you don’t have to be playing klezmer to include a clarinet on a track. Aldous Harding is a Kiwi folk singer-songwriter whose work I will definitely be checking out more regularly — though the video does prompt ever so many questions…not least of which is do I need to wear platforms to dance like that?

3. Firesmoke Kate Tempest

I read Kate Tempest’s book The Bricks That Built the Houses a few years ago and it remains one of my favourite reads of the past decade. I suspect this song will also be one of my favourites of the decade. It is an incredible, personal love song, a raw and searing portrait of intimacy. It’s Firesmoke.

4. All I Want Broken Social Scene

This one needs to be listened to up loud! It’s as bold and brash as Firesmoke is quiet and contained, but the sentiment remains the same. Canada’s indie rock darlings delivered this around the same time Vampire Weekend released Harmony Hall — it must have been quite a week for great tunes, because this one rocks and I love it.

5. Summer Girl HAIM

There is not, in my humble opinion, enough saxophone being played in songs these days (or clarinet…as The Barrel proved at No. 2 above). This song from HAIM is a poppy classic with a sax riff that gets stuck in your head in all the best ways. I love the video too: the idea of stripping off all we no longer need as we head into summer — not to mention the next decade — it one I can get behind.

Honourable Mentions this year go to James Blake for Don’t Miss It, and also to a few tracks released in 2018 than didn’t really make it onto my radar until 2019: Fireworks by First Aid Kit and No Roots by Joshua Hyslop.

And my Top 5 Throwbacks for the year (other than anything by the inimitable and still very much missed David Bowie) are, in no particular order:

  1. Love and Peace — Quincy Jones (1969)
  2. Heads Will Roll — Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2009)
  3. Kiss Them For Me — Siouxsie and the Banshees (1991)
  4. Where Is My Mind? — The Pixies (1988)
  5. Grateful Song — Villagers (2013)

Stay tuned for my best of 2019 in Movies/TV and books!