Between woozy alt-pop from Hayley Williams, Joji’s forward-looking latest and Billie Eilish’s chart-topping Bond theme, 2020 has seen some exciting releases so far. But as we look ahead to the upcoming projects of the year, I can’t help but reminisce those that went overlooked or under-appreciated in 2019. It was, in general, a pretty great year in music, particularly for pop, so it’s only natural that some great stuff would be lost amidst this. I know — the year is far behind us now, but numerous songs and projects worth an audience’s time simply did not see the light of popularity. Here are some picks: seven singles and tracks that ought to earn a spot on somebody somewhere’s playlist.
Okey Dokey ft. Liz Cooper – Modern Chemistry
‘Modern Chemistry’ is a wall-to-wall gauntlet of great melody and songwriting. Okey Dokey finds ways to twist the song’s various sections into feeling refreshing in each instance of reintroduction, the band surrounding musical and lyrical refrains with inventively spun melodies. The acoustic guitar blends great with the chunky drums in the verse, and the lower, more compressed parts of the mix work wonders for the pre-chorus’ thinning of instrumentation — the bass-cymbal clippings are especially imaginative. Liz Cooper’s voice is also extremely well-placed in conjunction with Okey Dokey’s songwriting, lending herself well to the climbing vocal lines that are in play. It’s a total gem of an indie tune, and in dire need of more attention.
Chela – Delivery
‘Delivery’ is perfect pop. This thing was made to be a hit, and, particularly in 2019, it’s a shame that it was not able to find its place within the mainstream. I love the verse’s fluctuating and high-mix bass line, as well as the sharpness of Chela’s “deliver to me” refrain coming in and out of the melody. The chorus’ fluttering synths bolster a retro feel to a successful extent, and the song remains sweet and moreish thanks to a positive sense of never quite reaching the clear-cut musical resolution that the audience would expect (the chorus’ chords are not typically satisfying). The song is included on an EP by the same name, the remaining material on which also sees Chela shoot for a retro-pop aesthetic to a reasonable degree. If you enjoyed the albums from Ariana, Lizzo or Charli XCX last year (or, more recently, the singles from Dua Lipa’s upcoming Future Nostalgia) then this one will be right up your alley.
The Voidz – The Eternal Tao
It’s a shame that they are known chiefly as Julian Casablancas’ “side project,” because the Voidz are a massively interesting group. Blending elements of rock, hip-hop, electronica and lo-fi, the band pursue an original, chaotic sound that is admirable and creative. ‘The Eternal Tao,’ one of their recent singles, sees the outfit employ rattling hi-hats and low synth loops in the verse to accompany Julian’s yelpy talk-sing drawl (his delivery is incredible), exploding later into a bustling, frenzied chorus with rapid ride cymbals and an extravagantly autotuned, distorted lead vocal. It’s a totally lovable cut thanks to its deranged ideas, sonic playfulness and explosive sense of performance. The band’s breed of modern experimental pop is a very noteworthy example of the sub-genre (see 2018’s Virtue), and ‘Tao’ shoots it to soaring heights.
Alan Power – Irene
Alan Power (no, not that one) throws together Springsteen, Cash and a hint of Knopfler for low-crooning takes on pop-country balladry, and this is seen at its best in ‘Irene’ — the opening track on his debut record Greatest Hits, Vol. 1. The song features satisfyingly paced vocals, and captures the wink-nudge wryness of his Americana pastiche effectively, with a simple instrumental and convincingly dry lyrics helping to get across the singer-songwriter’s performance personality. Bizarrely, this one is an ear-worm, too, and Power’s sense of songwriting confidence is infectious. It appeals.
Better Oblivion Community Center – Didn’t Know What I Was in For
To be fair, Phoebe Bridger’s and Conor Oberst’s super-duo was met with a decent amount of coverage for its self-titled debut record. The opening track, ‘Didn’t Know What I Was in For,’ though, is an unsung masterpiece of lyricism, and one that deserves great praise. The song reflects on society and the human condition with both black humour and heart over a spacious acoustic guitar and pseudo-electronic background soundscape. It is beautiful, affecting and thought-provoking, and covers a hell of a lot of ground in just four minutes. Oberst brings his usual charms to the table, and Bridgers cements herself as a titan of modern indie rock — it is a great culmination of the two’s talents.
Cavetown – Feb 14
The first single from Sleepyhead (out today!), ‘Feb 14’ is a handsome acoustic jam. Peppy drums, bittersweet melody and potent lyrics make it a track I’ve revisited a shocking amount since its release, with its emotional impact still holding as true as it did on first listen. Hear this one for a wonderful burst of melancholy, matured bedroom-pop, headed by an artist who continues to be one of the most likeable young voices on the scene.
half•alive – creature
This trio released one of the more creative and underrated pop records of last year in Now, Not Yet, moving from the Twenty One Pilots influence so detectable in the earlier releases into a slicker, more synthetic sound. The group incorporated bolder instrumentation than before, with a range of new, interesting loops and track backdrops, and funnelled what likely started as a hodgepodge of ideas into a cohesive, full-length project. ‘Creature’ is my favourite from the album, summarising what can be so enjoyable about Now, Not Yet with stabs of synth lining the chorus accentuating an in-and-out drum pattern, and lyrics referencing an otherworldly deity in a way that is ambitious and complementary despite clear references to Christianity (these tend to lose me). The inversion of rhythm in the song’s latter half is a surprising and bold switch-up and serves to move the track from its already compelling hook into a more wide-scope sonic venture — I like this a lot. I can see Half Alive doing some really interesting stuff to build on their style in the future; check it out.