Killer virus and political mayhem aside, 2020 wasn’t all that bad. There was some phenomenal music released this year. In fact, whittling this list down to just 20 tracks was a real challenge. Below are some of the tracks that I kept returning to this year.
20. ‘War’ – Idles
While my feelings were lukewarm on the new Idles album, the record’s opener ‘War’ is absolutely monstrous. Lyrically, the track is largely just Talbot making childlike gun and sword sound effects and screaming ‘WARRR!’ at the listener, and yet there’s so much energy thrown into it that it’s a total thrill-ride (the drums have all the savagery of a blitzkrieg).
19. ‘Stupid Love’ – Lady Gaga
The pop landscape saw a noticeable shift this year from moody downtempo numbers to upbeat rambunctious bops – most likely to distract everyone from the depressing pandemic. Dua Lipa’s ‘Levitating’ and The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’ almost made this list (they’re in the honourable mentions at the bottom), but Lady Gaga’s ‘Stupid Love’ is probably my favourite chart-topper from this year. Its cyber-synths and punchy drums go hard and the ‘freak out, freak out, freak out’ refrain is super catchy. The colourful sci-fi video is also very cool – it gives me Power Rangers vibes and was apparently ‘shot entirely on the iPhone 11 Pro’.
18. ‘A Hero’s Death’ – Fontaines DC
Dublin post-punk band Fontaines DC dropped their second album this year A Hero’s Death and this is the title track. Slow-building descending guitars, vocal oohs and motivational lyrics result in an oddly menacing pep talk. I particularly love the lyric ‘life ain’t always empty’ – it’s a confirmation that life can sometimes be inconsequential, but that there are small moments that can be immensely meaningful. I still haven’t got a clue what’s going on in the music video.
17. ‘Dragonball Durag’ - Thundercat
Some of you may dismiss this as just a silly song about a durag, but I think it’s actually a profound psychoanalysis on our need to seek approval from others. Honestly, WHY WON’T THEYJUST TELL HIM HOW HE LOOKS IN HIS GODDAMN DURAG??? Okay, so it really is just a silly song about a durag – however it’s hilariously entertaining (particularly the video) and the instrumental is deliciously groovy. It’s one of the more light-hearted songs from the funky singer-bassist’s new album It Is What It Is.
16. ‘Daisy’ – Ashnikko
Of all the female rappers churning out trap rap bangers this year, Ashnikko definitely seems to be one of the more creative. I’m digging the Arabian flavour of the beat and the moaned out delivery of the chorus – the whole thing is incredibly infectious. I also love her psycho bitch attitude. She makes me feel like an empowered woman.
15. ‘The Climb Back’ – J Cole
After being erroneously cancelled by Twitter, the North Carolina rapper climbed back this year with this new suitably-named single ‘The Climb Back’. The off-kilter self-produced beat is enchanting and the way in which he continuously switches up his flow feels effortless. Some of the bars are also really clever – my personal faves are ‘you’ll see how I flipped like exclamation points’ (‘!’ upside down is ‘i’) and ‘blow your clothes half off like a promo code’.
14. ‘Trolley Dash’ - Life Drawings
Life Drawings are a rock four-piece from London whose lyrics ‘explore mundane observations of everyday life, from rearranging one’s Tupperware collection to finding the end of a roll of sellotape’. This track ‘Trolley Dash’ is themed around panic buying in an imagined 2022 apocalypse (and was allegedly written and recorded long before the coronavirus pandemic!). The guitars and vocal style is reminiscent of The Fall, driven along by an infectious bass riff. My favourite part is the demented yelling of ‘and make sure you put a divider down at the end or else you’re going to pay for somebody else’s SHOPPING!’.
13. ‘Dreary Nonsense’ – Osees
This loopy noise rock tune is only 90 seconds long, but it's an exhilaratingly busy 90 seconds. In fact, the band manage to squeeze in two verses and a plethora of deranged riffs (the opening riff is particularly deranged - it barely sounds like a guitar). While it can be a struggle to keep up with this band’s prolific output (and frequent band name changes), it’s worth it for gems like this.
12. ‘Moving Pictures’ – Tape Tension
The audio and visuals to this song give me serious Toro Y Moi vibes. I love the dude’s dreamy voice and the instrumental is sheer synth porn. Tape Tension is the project of Minneapolis multi-instrumentalist and producer Jack Ross. He’s definitely an artist to keep an eye on if you love chillwave/dream pop/synthpop as much as I do.
11. ‘You Said It’ – KOYO
The opening bass riff sounds a lot like the breakdown from Slipknot’s ‘Duality’. But as the song progresses, it becomes clear that KOYO are nothing like Slipknot. The Leeds rock group slowly and suspensefully build up the song into a satisfying explosion of stabbing guitars and catchy belted vocals. It’s an explosive prog-indie sound that I haven't heard from any other band. Read me interview with the band here.
10. ‘Ferdous’ – Overdrive
I usually turn my nose up at any track with auto-tuned vocals, but this is auto-tune done right. Combined with those deep synths in the background, it results in a futuristic woozy aesthetic that I’d love to hear more of. It helps that dude can also clearly sing and isn’t just using auto-tune as a crutch like half of today’s mumble rappers (wow, I sound like a right old boomer). ‘Overdrive’ is part of a new two track EP – you can check out the other equally hypnotic single ‘Eventually’ here at Bandcamp.
9. ‘Shameika’ – Fiona Apple
Sometimes comments from people who barely touch our lives can have the biggest impact on us. This is what catchy and creative piano rock song ‘Shameika’ is largely about. Singer-songwriter Fiona Apple’s personality really shines though in the track (which she describes herself with the line ‘Tony told me he’d describe me as pissed off, funny and warm’) and there are some truly striking lyrics in the track such as ‘I wasn’t afraid of the bullies, and that just made the bullies worse’. It’s my favourite track off of her brilliant new album Fetch The Bolt Cutters.
8. ‘Snail’ – Benee
'Like a snail/ you're a guy'. The lyrics to this song are terrible, but regardless, I can’t get enough of this new quirky track from Auckland pop artist Benee. Both the beat and her vocal inflections are so bubbly and eccentric – the song sounds like nothing else currently out there. It’s matched by an equally bubbly and eccentric psychedelic snail-infested video that makes it all the more fun.
7. ‘Snow Day’ – Shame
‘It’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see, and yet you walk right past it all the time on your way to work!’ yells frontman Charlie Steen over tumultuous drums and fiercely tremolo-picked guitars. My God, this track is spectacular. It’s a densely-packed post-punk roller-coaster ride. The track constantly shifts gears, building up to manic climaxes and falling away to make room for the next exciting progression. It’s the most exciting rock song I’ve heard in 2020.
6. ‘REACHUPDONTSTOP’ – Baauer
‘Harlem Shake’ producer Baauer dropped a new album this year – and it contains some the filthiest EDM tracks ever to be conceived. It was a toss-up between choosing this track and ‘Planet’s Mad’ for my end of year list. This track just about edges it. The kick drums sound like cannons and the choppy sampling sounds like a war chant. The dreamy melodic synths that break up the track help to add some prettiness (as well as making each drop hit ten times harder).
5. ‘Good News’ – Mac Miller
Recorded only a few months before the rapper’s death, this single from Mac Miller’s new posthumous album Circles is a difficult listen. It’s a glimpse into his mind before he took his own life – you can hear him struggling to find the energy in his voice as he vents his depressed thoughts. The most painful part is hearing the brief moments of optimism that suggest he could have still found a way out. The bittersweet tone of the beat really adds to the vibe of the track.
4. ‘DIET_’ – Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats
Rapper Denzel Curry and producer Kenny Beats are both fast becoming hip hop legends, and ‘DIET_’ showcases the best of what both artists have to offer. Both the frenetic clanging beat and Denzel’s non-stop delivery make for an intense listen. Some of the meanest and most playful bars Denzel has ever written can be found in this song too including ‘if the game was a tooth, I’m a fucking pair of pliers’. It comes of the artists' new joint EP UNLOCKED.
3. ‘Change’ – Wesley Gonzalez
I cannot get enough of this song. The shimmering synths and groovy bassline are absolutely hypnotic, and Wesley’s voice gives me serious Bowie vibes. As with all the tracks on Wesley’s new synthpop record Appalling Human, it just feels so well-composed and well-produced. The lo-fi quality of the video and his ‘normal guy’ image are probably the reason many people are put off this track, but I personally find it all the more endearing (it’s clearly intentional).
2. ‘Strongboi’ – Strongboi
Another criminally underrated song – this eccentric bop released back in February is the work of quirky duo Strongboi, made up of South African singer Alice Phoebe Lou and producer Ziv Yamin. It contains a mixture of singing and rapping over strange and funky layers of synths. The ‘Strong! Boi! Strong! Boi!’ hook is such an earworm. I also love the VHS-quality video sporting awkward public dancing and wacky shades (there’s a pre-pandemic sense of nostalgia to it).
1. ‘America’ – Sufjan Stevens
This phenomenal over-twelve-minute single from Sufjan Stevens’ new album The Ascension is close to perfection. The track is a commentary on the downfall of America in 2020 (released before the election) in which Sufjan seems to be questioning his faith in God (or possibly humanity), summed up with the simple but powerful hook ‘don’t do to me what you did to America’. It combines the introspective vulnerability of Carrie & Lowell and the larger-than-life epicness of Planetarium. The genre-bending instrumental builds and builds to an almighty climax, while Sufjan's exasperated lyrics seem to grow in despair. Towards the end it dissipates into dark ambience as if giving in to the oppressive bleakness. But in the last couple minutes, things brighten up - a suggestion that there is still a light at the end of the tunnel and that, as bad as things get, there is always hope. It’s the soundtrack of 2020.