#5EUK Top 15 Songs of 2020
LADIES & GENTLEMEN! We have finally reached the closing days of this absolutely batshit year. This is the first time I've written on here since March, which is a mixture of depressing and annoying for me personally.
This year has been one of change for many of us and it has been the same for me. The writing on here has suffered the most but every other facet of my creative endeavours has flourished. If you have been on this site this year, it was most likely to peep one of the Podcasts under the 5EPN. If you are one of those people, I'd like to take this moment to say thank you and I highly appreciate the time you've given.
I gathered very quickly, once I began the Podcasts, that I would have less reason to type my commentary on things because I have "What's Good?" or "Diggin' In The Digits" for those. And it is what it is. Most of my writing goes into my Screenwriting career these days, it's the natural progression of things. And this is a selfish way of thinking about things. I don't make money from any of this and I don't really ask for any because most of the things I do, is because I want to do them.
WHICH BRINGS ME to the thing that I will always try to find time for at the end of the year. My End of Year lists!
I thoroughly enjoy doing these. I spend most of my days listening to something audio-based. Whether it be Music, Podcasts or AudioBooks. It's so consistent that I rarely get time to watch new Hip-Hop visuals that I usually review. ("The 40 Year Old Version" is on my list amongst other things.)
But where the TV & Film gets neglected, the Music gets stronger and boy did I have fun doing this one.
If you peeped my 2019 Songs List, you may remember that I made it fully subjective, picking songs that I personally spun perpetually throughout the year. And this year, I decided to continue that trend. Maybe one day I'll make an "objective" Songs List in conjunction with this "subjective" list.
But for now, it's all subjective so prepare for some heaters! Some you may have heard, some you may not have heard, most likely the latter. I hope the latter because what's the point if you're not listening to something new?!
Before I begin, I did purposefully place these songs so its not a shuffle job. If you want to skip all the way to the end and peep the playlist, go for it! And then come back here to read why these songs immediately made my 'Regular Rotation'. Let's begin with a member of The Soul Council.
E. Jones - Brighter Daze (Feat. Will Jordan & Amber Navran)
For those that don't know. E. Jones, he's a producer & 1/7th of 9th Wonder's in-house production team "The Soul Council" which I consistently say is the best production collective in music right now. (He is also Director of A&R @ Jamla Records.) But this is all about E. Jones and his last track on his album "Deadstock Vol. 4", "Brighter Daze".
I love the album as a whole. It's officially an Instrumental album but there are a few tracks peppered in with some vocals and this track is one of them.
With 2020 in mind, this song is really a nice palette cleanser for all the garbage that has come around. A sprightly beat with Amber Navran's breathy loops. Topped with a couple of verses from Will Jordan that basically vocalises the point of the track.
But if the beat & the wonderful slowed down pace near the end didn't hit, then the end definitely will, with a lovely application of a message from the late Kobe Bryant:
"I encourage you to always be curious, always seek out things you love, and always work hard once you find it. So with that. I'll let you carry on with your evening. Please know, I'm thinking of you, supporting you and encouraging you, always. Peace." - Kobe Bryant
Nas - Ultra Black (Prod. Hit-Boy)
From the voice of one great to another. Its tracks like these that show me the potential of old Hip-Hop. Those songs that Hip-Hop veterans can do to just celebrate. This is just, nice to listen to! The Hit-Boy beat has that signature smooth bass that doesn't attempt to blow your speakers off, it evolves nicely throughout.
But Nas' lyrics, as always, cut like a knife through butter. Silky mentions of everything black. From Grace Jones to Micheal Blackson, to 'black don't crack', to Colin Kaepernick, to the Essence Fest, Sandford & Son, Motown; I can go on.
I just love the celebratory nature of this song. It's inviting, it puts me in a good mood and is soaked in blackness. This easily could've been tainted with "Roc Nation Brunch" vibes or "hotep" vibes but Nas kept it simple and it worked out a treat.
"Talk with a mask on, the freshest breath / African black soap caress the flesh / Superfly, The Mack, sittin' fly in the 'Lac / Take the boat on the water, history talks with my daughter"
CJ Fly - BLOCK PARTY (Feat. Kirk Knight)
Let's keep the good vibes rolling! There's something about songs like CJ Fly's "BLOCK PARTY" that always have a timeless feel to it. And it's easy to spot where that feeling comes from. Because we all have those types of thoughts that CJ gets into for this track on a calm Statik Selektah beat. The smells, the sights, the people you're with, the things that threaten the vibes.
This song is wonderfully vivid. From the jump, before he even gets into the 1st verse. Good weed, charcoal on the grill. Just from that, you can easily give yourself a couple of indicators that remind you of good times. Whilst the song is in the eyes of Fly & feature Kirk Knight, you can easily replace the indicators with whatever you want.
There's nothing like nostalgia...
"And shawty smile bright with that sundress, oh yes / She been [with] sense of winnin', type might pull back out my GORE-TEX / Fuck 12, but today, we don't want no stress / The kids outside, we don't wanna see no corpses" - Kirk Knight
Tkay Maidza - 24k
(Other Songs Considered: Shook)
I remember one time I recorded an episode of DITD and something we do at the end of every episode is the "Lighter Note" where we talk about stuff that's on our mind, unrelated to the subject of the episode. (It's rarely 'light' as the name suggests.)
For one of them, I gave Ben a challenge, asking for his Top 5 subgenres. I forget what I had in my five but I know for a fact that this throwback type of House that Tkay Maidza has going on for "24k" wasn't one of them.
But DAMN do I love everything about this track. The throwback nature of it. That six-feet-deep bass, the pacey claps, all while Tkay just FLOATS on all of it with BPE (Big Pum Energy) radiating out makes this an outright bop. It's bouncy, its current but also retro. It's just got all the ingredients.
"Say it once, not twice or I pick up the nerve / I'ma say it one time, better do not disturb / I'ma raise my fees, drive the Benz with the skrrt / Make a nigga wanna hit it but it do not occur / Make a rude bitch mad 'cause my ice got the brr"
Bishop Nehru - In My Zone
We keep the flex subject matter but switch the vibe up to something a little more modern. I've heard of Bishop Nehru for a while now, heard a few things here & there. But his '20 album "My Disregarded Thoughts" was the first time I listened to Bish properly. And the 2nd track, "In My Zone", was the one that got me.
It's fairly simple in a lot of ways. Trappy beat, confident flow throughout. But sometimes, simplicity is all you need! Sometimes you just need that track that doesn't mess about. Go for the jugular.
Every bar hits nice, the messaging especially speaks to me a lot. It's just one of those tracks that get the job done.
"They moving iffy, they can't fuck wit' Bishy / Young and in charge so I'm seeing 'em envied / Not with the talkin', I'm not with the pity / Need a menage, it don't gotta be Nicki"
Che Noir & 38 Spesh - Queen City
Che Noir is one of my favourite discoveries this year. I love her pen game, I love her hustler mentality and vivid imagery. "Queen City" is a great example of Noir's skill. Only two verses but they're stuffed with great content.
Compound that with a 38 Spesh beat that sounds STRAIGHT from a Blaxploitation Era movie. This gives me Pam Grier "Coffy" vibes. (And since the first track on her latest work "After 12" was a homage to "Foxy Brown", that definitely checks out.) That might have been lost if another artist was on it but because of Che Noir's ability to walk you through whatever she says, you get yourself a track that acts, whether intentional or not, like a time machine.
"Heart of a queen, blood of a slave / I was starving to eat, hunger to chase / Never fall for the greed or trust in a snake / Gotta watch for the thieves, gun on my waist"
Che Lingo - Black Ones (Feat. Ghetts)
(Other Songs Considered: My Block)
I'll be honest here. I didn't even clock that I had CHE Noir above CHE Lingo until the day I began writing this. But I'm glad I did. We start to get a little dark with this one. But the thing I love about Che Lingo is that he has this ability to talk about street life but also have pristine beats. That's a near-impossible parallel to pull off but he did it for not just this track but for the album this track is housed.
But sticking to this song in particular, there's a style to this song that magnetises me. There's a Classic Western feel, deeply layered in the modern UK Rap production. Add on a Ghetts feature that gets better by the second.
The pacing of this track is something to marvel as well. It slows down & speeds up so often, and it should be annoying at how often the pace changes but I see it akin to a really good action movie. Of course, we're all waiting for the fists to fly but everything needs a period for the audience to breathe and Che Lingo does that with complete confidence.
"Black gloves on my hands / Stylie on my face / Workouts on my feet / Quiet in the car / The tires, them a screech / I've been thinking about that money and it's finally in my reach / I've been thinking bout that money and it's finally in my reach" - Ghetts
Otis Mensah - Breath Of Life (Feat. Hemlock Ernst)
A #FriendOf5E comes through as a stylistic palette cleanser for the playlist. Mensah is a consistent contender for any of my lists for any given year. Always giving the freshest poetry in the UK over some of the best traditional Hip-Hop beats.
This one has it all. One of the cleanest beats of the year with a tasty sample & saxophone loop to boot. And then a classic Mensah performance: A roller-coaster of vocal inflexions which provides the track with insomnia-induced anxiety, even though the beat is calm as a glass of water sitting on a wooden table.
Mix that with a Hemlock Ernst feature who provides a more exploratory route through the track, his vocal tone sitting nicely on the bassline but constantly switching speeds. This may sound like it is a jarring listen but the lyrical weaving here is so sublime that I personally can't help but consistently spin.
"The stairwell plays minor scale / My pride impaled and dreams for sale / Leave me stale or see me sail / Watch me sink or see me hailed" - Otis Mensah
Seba Kaapstad - The Kingdom
This was my final pick for the list (I'll give you some of the songs that didn't make the list at the end) so there's a little bit of recency bias sprinkled in but regardless of that, this song is wonderful.
Multi-National quartet Seba Kaapstad, on the forever underrated Mello Music Group, are one of my hidden joys. I don't know anybody else that listens to them but I'm sure that'll change soon because you are all missing out on some prime quality music.
"The Kingdom" has so many things going for it. Vocalists Ndumiso Manana & Zoe Modiga dance through the track with lyrics built on the themes of Love & War. They combine several times throughout and the chemistry is magical.
Behind them, the production goes from a soulful beat in the hooks to this live instrumentation that just lifts me. Especially at the end where the melody is repeated but every time it comes back around there's more. It gets borderline orchestral and just makes the song overall a riveting listen.
"Your castle is your heart and I'm the queen of it / The kingdom a game of chess but what without me / Daggers all over the place just to see who reigns / If we're not growing we're just dying in this acid rain" - Zoe Modiga
Aaron Taylor - Don't Leave Me Alone (Feat. Lalah Hathaway)
I've been listening to Aaron Taylor for a while now. I even saw him live back when that kind of thing existed. I knew that he had a natural talent and sensual style to his craft. A song like this exemplifies that and much more.
A slow, bassy track with outstanding levels of vocal stacking. The hook is straight-up hypnotic. And that's before I even mention veteran Lalah Hathaway that makes this track what it is. Two people singing about their need for each other. It's a beautiful duet, plain & simple.
"You are the ground that gives me my full bloom (Bloom) / You are the anchor this vessel clings to (To) / You give me colour when I'm feeling blue (Blue) / When I need direction I know I can turn to you" - Lalah Hathaway (Aaron Taylor) (Both)
Protoje - In Bloom (Lila Iké)
(Other Song Considered - Switch It Up Feat. Koffee)
I have to apologise to Protoje here because past his amazing production along with Natural High that truly sets the tone for this one, I'm here for one person and that's Lila Iké.
This woman just absolutely steals this whole track. I've been aware of Lila since Protoje created his label In.Digg.Nation and have enjoyed her work up to this point but the sensuality she puts into her vocals! So up close & breathy, it's like she's right in your ear. (Insert headphone joke here.) Team that with this slow, bassy production.
This track is just too nice and serves in the context of the playlist, the climax of a dance between our fictional couple.
"Open up your eyes and fight for your rights / Or you will die / 'Cause I'm gonna fight for you day and night / But it's alright, that's right baby"
Jah9 - Could It Be
We know reach the final chapter of the playlist and it's one of reflection.
We begin with one of my favourite artists, Jah9, who continues to give honest & authentic music all under smooth Roots Reggae. This track "Could It Be" is a perfect example of her artistry.
The two standouts for me here both come from Jah9. Firstly is her lyrics. They're one of a woman that literally sees a better version of herself in the mirror. She has such skill when it comes to her lyrics. They have this perfect balance at being simple but poetic and she spends half the time going between both.
But it's not just the lyrics here. When you take that side of her performance and then add her vocals. THEN you have a powerful song. Vocally, she goes in, especially when you account for the background vocals with her. They perfectly compliment her unique vocals.
Poetic, powerful, and a little painful honestly. But you know it's great art when you feel something you don't intend to.
"Her life is invested / Her faith has been tested / The fruit of her remission is surrender to the promise of eternal life / Because she know the heights"
Spittzwell & Boog Brown - The Seed
Producer Spittzwell & lyricist Boog Brown team up for this calm yet confident affirmation in your ability and urgency to continue getting what you're after.
As soon as you press play you clock the sample. You know them Pharcyde vibes. (via Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfá) The way Spittzwell flips it and breathes new life into the sample is so nice to me. Brown even makes a mention of "Runnin'" very slickly in the 1st verse. The beat is dynamic and frequently changes depending on where you're at in the track. No plain loops here!
But let's talk about Boog Brown for a minute. I don't know what it is but I just love the way she raps. Her delivery is always silky smooth and her ad-libs/vocal stacking (on the hook) for this track, in particular, are a very underrated plus for this track.
I love the beat, I love Brown's voice & her lyrical content speak to me in the same way "In My Zone" does. It all begins with a small seed...
"Some still think shit's sweet, no matter / Life keep giving you what you think the answer / You see, you speak what you're after / All things begin with a small seed (You you the master)"
Blu & Exile - The American Dream (Feat. Miguel & The Last Artful, Dodgr)
One of my favourite Hip-Hop duos is back for the penultimate entry to the list! Blu & Exile's epic "Miles" was an album buried with depth on both of the two's respective crafts. But ironically, it was "The American Dream" that caught my imagination the most.
It's tracks like these that make me love Blu & Exile so much as a duo. I've said before that Exile as a producer has this ability to not just make beats knock but give them this child-like mysticism. It's hard to explain but for the songs I love most by them are always the ones with those two Exile ingredients. It's punctuated by the features of Miguel & The Last Artful, Dodgr talking about how they can't sleep because of how hard they're dreaming, how their mind just can't relax. We've all been there.
And then there are the verses by Blu which gives this satirical cynicism to the concept of "The American Dream". He takes the concept and just makes it more absurd than it already is to the point where he finishes his appearance by simply stating "I just want to be G.O.D." Can't go more absurd than that!
But regardless of the borderline comical lyrics, I always bring myself back to the child-like wonder of the beat & hook. I constantly struggle to sleep, simply due to my mind thinking too much. I find it a blessing and a curse. Guess you could say the same for "The American Dream". Whilst it's a silly concept, some people stake their lives on it and I can't hate on someone that goes for the impossible.
"All I want is the American pie / You know, a big fat slice of that American lie / Same dream they sold that made America fly / Into the sky, to the moon, back to Houston, bullshit" - Blu
Ric Flo - Acceptance
(Other Songs Considered: For The Takin')
We finish with #FriendOf5E Ric Flo who already had a song that was locked in for this list but he then decided to drop a song that hit me even cleaner than the OSC!
The first time I heard "Acceptance", I knew that I was going to have it either start or finish my list. As you can see, it's last, and there's an easy reason for that. Because it deserves to be the final word on this list, compiled during this madness of a year.
This track starts off with some soft piano hits, then comes back around with some echoey elements and then hits you with a "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" style beat. But this one contains much more uplifting content.
Flo finally comes in with a kind of looking outward, then inward approach. Commentating on a myriad of things, but it all comes back to the first thing he says. "Acceptance is not needed, I accept myself."
It's a straightforward mantra but it's one that sets the tone for this song.
But it's none of that which makes me float. It's when the verses finish. A bassy pulsating just shakes the floor as the echoey elements gain more prominence. The final moments of this song are simply magical. The bass, the synths, then the beat comes back in on top of all of it. Simple yet layered in every facet, "Acceptance" is just an amazing stew of music that ticks all the boxes...
And with that, we're done with our journey. If you haven't already, go spin the playlist below and if you've gone through all 59 minutes of it front to back, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did curate it.
EPs next. Thanks for reading.
Other Songs Considered:
Jordan Makampa - Magic
Rapsody - Afeni (Remix) (Feat. PJ Morton & D Smoke)
Lady Sanity - Trappin
Eastern Sunz - Welfare (Feat. Rahim Thornhill)
Kid Abstrakt & Emapea - Jazz & Coffee, Pt. 4
Joey Bada$$ - Shine
Madlib - Crime Pays (Instrumental)
Ric Wilson & Terrace Martin - Breakin Rules (Feat. Corbin Dallas)
Warren G - And You Know That (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
Royce Da 5"9 - Black Savage (Feat. Sy Ari Da Kid, White Gold, CyHi The Prynce & T.I.)