“So there it is. The beauty and the bullshit. A slow crawl out of hell. Through mud, blood, and tears. I’ve earned every stripe. Every stitch and every bruise. Yeah, I’ve got regrets and plenty of things I’d change. Well, fuck it. C’est la vie. It’s all part of the mix. So eyes, heart, and soul forward. I’m never going back. I’m never going back to those days…” –Birds of Tokyo, “Never Going Back”
2020. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? It was universally a bad year full of loss, isolation, and discord that most of us would probably rather forget but never will. So many crazy things were crammed into one year that we probably won’t remember everything 10 months, let alone 10 years, from now. (Who has already forgotten the murder hornets? The Australian fires? The Wayfair conspiracy? It’s been 84 years since those happened!)
For all the bad of 2020, there was some great music released. I have always loved to seek out new music, so I always listen to music friends share, frequently get into music heard on TV/movies, and basically have no fewer than 20 songs on my Recently Added smart playlist of songs added in the last 2 weeks on iTunes at a given time. (I’m old school and usually only use Spotify to check out music I think I might like and prefer to have songs for myself without streaming.) I even got into a band – Night Traveler – after hearing a tiny snippet of a song on YouTube on an indie channel after listening to another song. I couldn’t say how many songs I added this year, but considering I had over 300 songs on my Recently Added playlist at one point, it’s safe to say it’s a lot! (Current iTunes song count: 11,562. Let’s see how many it is in a year!) I have many more to add, but I just haven’t had the time in a while to sit down and go through my long list of songs on Shazam. I haven’t even had time to write on this blog in the last year and am posting this on the first day of 2021, so it’s actually pretty impressive I added as many as I did, and it was still a fairly slow year for me.
With so much good music, I somewhat struggled to decide on a Song of the Year for this impossible year. A lot of the music I’ve loved the most couldn’t be The One because they were either not from this year (James Bay) or the artists had already been featured in a previous year (Tommy Ashby). My own rules stipulate that artists can’t be repeated (mainly to stop myself from just repeating the same artists – I’m looking at you, Luke Sital-Singh – year after year), and the song has to be from the same year. Last year’s song “Apollo (New Love)” was the pretty obvious choice early on just by the number of listens it got. This year, I couldn’t really decide on a final song until about a week ago, and I’ve questioned myself for a few days after this song sneaked up on me as an option. Part of this was because there weren’t a lot of songs I really fell in love with (totally different feeling than just loving a song) that were actually from 2020 or were by an artist who I hadn’t already used before.
Another reason is that even though songs like Ben Folds’ “2020” may be great, my Song of the Year has never been about songs that detail the year they’re from or are even the “best” song but rather the ones that have some sort of personal meaning to me or that were in regular rotation, i.e. made it to my Every Day Songs playlist of songs I listen to every day. I didn’t want something that shouted, “What a terrible year this has been!” and have never cared what everyone else thinks is the best. There were also a lot that were single songs by an artist, and I haven’t listened to the rest of their music yet, but I think with a lot of the songs I’ve had as a Song of the Year, I was actually into the artist and not just one of their songs. There are definitely a lot of artists I want to hear more of when I have more time! Therefore, the song I chose fits all the boxes: A song released in 2020 that means something to me and by a band I love.
Before I get on with it, some honourable mentions: “Dive” by Birds of Tokyo, “Contact” by Jordan Fisher, “I Still Love You” and “Ocean Cabin” by Night Traveler (If a couple of their other songs had been from 2020, there’s a chance they would have had the Song of the Year), and “On the Floor” by Perfume Genius.
Even though I listen to a wide range of music, both popular and not, I think I’m more often known for my love of music that doesn’t chart everywhere and that my friends probably wouldn’t have heard of it I hadn’t forced it on them. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Birds of Tokyo, the artist of this year’s song, are probably not known to many non-Aussies in my circle, unless I’ve gotten them into the Australian band myself. I first heard Birds of Tokyo in late December 2014 when “Lanterns” was on the Jim Jefferies show Legit and fell in love with it and with them. The album it was on, March Fires, became one of my favourite albums I heard in 2015. I didn’t know at the time how monumental that song and album would be in 2015 or how much I would grow to absolutely love Birds of Tokyo. I remember when I moved to a country I’d never been in Asia in early 2015, and I listened to “Lanterns” on my way to the airport because of the verse “Lately I’ve found, when I start to think aloud, there’s a longing in the sound. There is more I could be. In darkness I leave for a place I’ve never seen. It’s been calling out to me. That is where I should be.” It was where I should be, and that was the anthem that kicked off the best year of my life. Their music has remained a staple since 2015, although my favourite song of theirs is actually “I’d Go With You Anywhere” because I’m a sucker for strings in alternative music, and the whole song just flows so beautifully.
Considering I have listened to Birds of Tokyo on a frequent basis for the last 5 years, I was pretty ecstatic to learn in April that they had released a new album called Human Design one day before I found out. Their previous album, 2016’s Brace, admittedly took some time to grow on me, but I loved Human Design almost instantly. The timing of its release was perfect with the pandemic, and although several songs sound like they could have been to inspire people during these crazy times, they would have been written before. I still prefer March Fires above their other albums, but Human Design is a great album in its own right. It seems to be a much more personal album than some of their previous work with themes of family, relationships, mental health, and regret. Essentially, it’s just about being human and experiencing all that life throws at us as humans. It comes off as vulnerable and relatable on a universal level, and it takes us on an emotional journey with them. Their music has always had some anthems, and Human Design is no exception, but some of the songs are moving and powerful in a different way than some of their previous work because of their vulnerability, and they are more about coming out of the dark.
As I listened to Human Design repeatedly for a bit, there were two songs that actually did end up on my Every Day Songs playlist, as a number of Birds of Tokyo songs have in the past. “Dive” had a sweet music video showing everyone connected by heart when they couldn’t be together because of the pandemic. With lines like, “I would dive for you into darkest blue,” it is just a beautiful song about being there for someone who is struggling without being too cheesy. Lead singer Ian Kenny (who some may know from Karnivool) often looks directly in the camera as he sings, as he tends to do in other songs, making it feel like he is singing to you and that we really are all connected. The song immediately following it on the album, “When Home Calls,” is an equally sweet song about missing someone, something we can all relate to. Both of these songs were given consideration for my Song of the Year because I listened to them so much, and they were the only ones added to the coveted Every Day Songs playlist (Very few actually make it to the playlist that has 441 songs after 13 years, many of which were added in the first year!) that were actually from 2020 and not by artists who had already been featured.
Although I love the ones mentioned above, they didn’t really feel as appropriate for Song of the Year as the closing track on Human Design. “Never Going Back” felt more me for where I was in my life in 2020. In 2019, I made a dream come true by moving to London. For the most part, it has lived up to expectations, and I never want to move back to the country where I grew up. I am still in love with London, and in the almost 2 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve gotten to go so many places and do so many interesting things since I moved here. (A Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Once More, With Feeling” live musical performed by a bunch of famous British comedians springs to mind.) Not everything has been great, though. I am lucky/unlucky to be an essential worker on a visa, so I was never laid off or furloughed. My job is physically and emotionally draining and demanding with many sleepless nights at the best of times, but I had a particularly difficult, chaotic year at work. It actually got so bad that at one point not long ago, I cried for days and pretty much had a breakdown. I even considered leaving it all behind, effectively destroying my own dream and plans, and running away to another country to figure out something else to do entirely.
But I didn’t. I’ve stayed and fought it out and reminded myself that there are always other options and that even though I have had some of the worst times of my life in the UK, I have also had some of the best. I think this experience is why “Never Going Back” spoke to me the way it did when it did. It was always one of my favourites on this album, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it as much until I needed it.
In my time, I’ve seen all things. Some that made me. And some broke me, too. Through the bullshit and the beauty, sometimes changes leave marks on you. If I’m being honest, there’s no promise that all things turn the way you want them to. And the best part is the pain and heartache will teach you how to find a way through.
Like the other songs on the album, I think that “Never Going Back” is relatable. It is about being lost in life and knowing you’re not feeling right, needing something new but not knowing how to get there. At the same time, it tells that that’s okay. Toxic positivity is a real thing, and sometimes we need to just sit with the bad for a bit, instead of trying to ignore it or pretend everything’s fine as the world is (literally) burning around us. and It’s about understanding that things don’t always work out like we want or plan. At the same time, “Never Going Back” recognises that even if things aren’t okay now, it’s important to learn to accept things as they are sometimes and move forward, never backwards. I’ve always said that I don’t believe in regrets, and even though there is a line about having ‘regrets and plenty of things I’d change,’ this remains true. I can’t believe in regrets because that would prevent me from overcoming the bad and going forward. As cliché as it is, everything really does happen for a reason, and we have to learn from it. I could have gone back to my country that never really felt like home, but that would be going back in life, too. Who wants to do that? I’m all about growth and moving forward, and that’s what “Never Going Back” represents to me.
Musically, “Never Going Back” is the perfect song to end the album. It feels more like classic (to me) Birds of Tokyo than some of the other songs, as much as I like those, too. Like strings, rock songs with keys have a special place in my heart (hence my love of Andrew McMahon‘s music I’ve written about before), and the instruments are beautifully layered throughout. These instruments gradually build momentum with a rise and fall that truly makes the song. Once the drums really kick in, there’s an intensity that makes this song the one to be remembered because it perfectly encapsulates the rest of the album. The quick change in the bridge – the lyrics in the very first part of this post – with it being spoken before the climax lends to it not becoming a stale, ordinary song about overcoming challenges because it is constantly evolving, and you don’t really know what instrument will come into play next or what will happen next. I generally prefer slower songs to fast ones with more instruments because I’m a lyrics person above all else, and I like acoustics, but this is a song that I can’t see having the same impact if they did an acoustic version. It’s a song that needs to rock a bit harder, especially as the closing track. It just wouldn’t work anywhere else in the album.
When concerts finally start up again, I can just picture a crowd – hopefully in the UK someday! – singing this as the closer before the encore because it’s so easy to rock out to and so difficult to sit still when listening to it. There is a music video for the song that unfortunately cuts out about a minute of the song, but it shows footage of the band on tour and recording, and it is a great song for a montage because of the slow build in the music and the message. The more you listen to it – really listen to it – the more you can’t help liking it and relating to it, if not now then in the past or maybe in the future when you hear it at the very time you need it.
At the beginning of this, I admitted that I was still questioning my song choice because it wasn’t one I had really considered before. I’ve listened to “Never Going Back” a number of times as I’ve been writing, and I’m actually more confident in this choice and think it’s actually my favourite song on the album now. (It might even make it to the infamous Every Day Songs playlist!) It doesn’t feel too much like a “2020 sucked” song, and it’s really cathartic to listen to, especially being on the other side of things now and hoping everything will get easier. I refuse to remain stuck in the past and dwell on 2020, which wasn’t all bad. “So eyes, heart, and soul forward…” I don’t know what the future brings for the world or for myself, but I do know one thing for certain: I’m never going back.
What was your song of 2020? Share in the comments below!