I’ve long held the opinion that the era of art with the most merit is always the one you most study. The harder you look, the more you’ll find that’s worthy of praise, so I’ll make no broad claims about what a phenomenal year 2020 has been for music. I know it’s likely that any exceptional qualities the year might seem to have likely arisen from a combination of recency bias and the fact that it’s only in recent years that I have begun devouring albums so assiduously. Nonetheless, I heard a lot of music I loved this year, and out of more than a hundred albums, picking just ten tracks to single out for particular adulation was no small challenge. However, I’m fairly content with the ten songs I’ve refined my choices down, although I have been anxious to avoid repeating myself and instead spotlight songs and artists I haven’t had the chance to publish about before.
“Covered in Money!” by JPEGMAFIA
It’s rare that I enjoy the music of underground, experimental rapper-producer-singer JPEGMAFIA as much as I wish I could, but he’s consistently improved since the release of his pretty rough debut “Black Ben Carson” and his many non-album singles of 2020 have been his best material to date. “Covered in Money!” is easily my favourite track of his. The song is broken into two distinct halves, the first of which is absolutely insane, the instrumental is a broken cacophony of cymbal crashes and chanting, with a wet-sounding ticking beat and an assortment of random sound effects. Over this Peggy delivers simultaneously the hardest and the funniest verse of the whole year, declaring his intentions to “go pop” and this piece of madness is his ironic attempt to do so, stacking the verse with clout chasing disses directed at Drake. If you’ve seen the movie Frank where the mentally ill title character attempts to compose his “most likeable song ever”, then you’ll have an appreciable grasp of what you’re in for. The second half is a lot more restrained, but little less entertaining, with Peggy delivering a supremely catchy melodic flow over a warbling synth line. It’s far and away the weirdest song I’ve heard all year, and all the more fantastically enjoyable for it.
“Pretty Please” by Dua Lipa
“Pretty Please” is my favourite song from my favourite album of 2020. Despite that it’s a deceptively typical song for the album. The lyrical themes are like many other tracks on the album; approaching a new romantic encounter with the resolve to maintain your composure, but soon finding your defences lowering themselves against your better judgement, and falling head over heels again, your racing mind soothed by the comforting presence of your new partner. It’s a tender come on that has enough vulnerability to feel relatable. Dua, of course, delivers her vocal lines with flawless composure, as she does on every track on Future Nostalgia. It’s the instrumental, produced by Ian Kirkpatrick and with backing vocals from Julia Michaels, and its countless little embellishments that push the track over the top for me. The echoing chant on the pre-chorus, the crystal-clear ringing accenting the chorus itself, the sensuous and heated bass-line, coy whooping, playful dings, and the warm, spine-tingling vocal manipulated breakdowns, it’s all arranged to perfection to support the blissful vocal melodies.
“Blue World” by Mac Miller
It’s more than two years now since those closest to him lost Mac Miller, just a few weeks after the release of his fifth studio album Swimming. A year and a half later, his label posthumously released the album he had been working on at the time of his death, Circles. Even removing the context of his passing, the album, considered by many to be one of the year’s best and a career-high for Miller, is a sobering listen with many moments like the lead single “Good News”, exploring his feelings of depression in poignant and evocative detail. In such a context, it might equally be seen as either perverse or inevitable, that one should latch onto the album’s most uplifting moment. Produced by Guy Lawrence of Disclosure, “Blue World” comes with a breathy and furry groove that seems to emerge from a warming sun of a winter’s morning, with personable handclaps and a relaxed, free-spirited melody. Miller’s raw and blissful vocals croon happy and uplifting lyrics that speak of a newfound positive outlook, walking on clouds with a light, unhurried step.
“Joanna/Where’s Joanna?” by HMLTD
Although many singles on HMLTD’s debut album West of Eden had been released long in advance of the album—tracks like “To the Door” and “Satan Luella & I” were released as far back as 2017—there were still multiple highlights eligible for this list. With such a varied album it was a hard task to pick a representative track, I strongly considered the fantastic, glittery new wave number “Mikey’s Song”, the nocturnal and soulful pop track “Nobody Stays in Love” and the uplifting closer “Blank Slate”, however, the phenomenal conceptual writing of the sister tracks “Joanna” and “Where’s Joanna?” was too impressive to ignore.
The twin songs conceptualise the experience of a trans woman, first imagining the feminine alter ego being violently repressed in adolescence, and then concealed around the house as an adult. It’s as if the female self has been murdered by denying it and the main character is torn apart by suspicion, judgement and paranoia, like an LGBTQ+ version of The Tell-Tale Heart. The twisted and macabre imagery of the latter track invites some superb and gruesome poetic metaphors and the tracks carnivalesque Eastern Bloc melodies are highly reminiscent of the most classic My Chemical Romance tracks like “Mama” and “Teenagers”. Lead singer Henry Spychalski’s dramatic and unhinged performance is utterly captivating and carries off the extraordinarily bold and ambitious song-writing flawlessly.
“Damage Suppressor” by Black Dresses
One of the saddest musical stories of 2020 was the dissolution of Black Dresses. The duo of Devi McCallion and Ada Rook had slowly established themselves one of the most exciting new musical acts of the last two years and had just reached their peak with their best album Peaceful as Hell, when the band broke up following a campaign of social media harassment. Peaceful as Hell now seems a particularly poignant statement in retrospect, with the noisy and distorted sounds masking a sweet and vulnerable personality, even including songs like “Please Be Nice”, appealing directly for people to be kinder to one another online. As the chorus goes: “don’t be weird, don’t be mean, you’re on my computer screen. It’s my world, it’s my life, I’m a person, please be nice”, in just one example of the album expressing a careworn and disappointed sense of optimism.
It’s hard picking a favourite track on such a consistently fantastic album, but the song I return to most often is “Damage Suppressor”, one of the album’s most innocent and winning songs. The track portrays life as one big video game, reframing the things people say to their teammates when gaming together, as uplifting and encouraging emotional support. Despite the distorted and glitchy guitar riffs and eccentric vocal delivery, it’s a fantastically endearing and catchy tune with a sweet, anthemic earworm chorus: “everything ends but I got sixty per cent left, battle damage, purgatory, hail world princess. Somehow everything’s still unfolding, somehow we’re both still holding on.” It’s one of the most intensely likeable moments on a supremely charming album that impeccably balances a tortured emotional articulation with buoyant and colourful energy.
“Losers 2” by Spanish Love Songs
If Black Dresses delivered our annual quota of optimism, then Spanish Love Songs gave us all the pessimism 2020 needed with their fantastic emo punk album Brave Faces Everyone, with only the group’s sardonic sense of humour and impeccable hear for hooks alleviating the doom and gloom. Perhaps the most downhearted song on the whole record is “Losers 2”, it’s also arguably the best written, interleaving personal detail with coldly poetic imagery and a hard, political edge tying modern grievances to those of the near past. The chorus literally goes: “don’t you know you were born to die poor, man? Don’t you know that you’re gonna do yourself in, and you’ll always wake up tired? Because there’s nowhere that we go from here”.
Despite the bleak outlook, the track is enthused by the skin prickling riffs and exciting pace. The track opens with the groups distinctive and dynamic vocalist Dylan Slocum recollecting the loss of his childhood home in the 2008 financial crash, before pressing onward in the hopes of finding a place where “the f—k-ups aren’t cops, patrolling neighbourhoods they’re afraid of”. The incisive social commentary throughout keeps the track grounded and relatable and the song-writing is exciting enough to make the track feel ultimately more inspiring and refreshing than it is depressing.
“The Bigger Picture” by Lil Baby
In the context of the raised profile of the Black Lives Matter movement, following what was merely the latest spate of deaths of unarmed black American citizens at the hands of police, many artists within the hip-hop community took up a new conscious slant. One of the most discussed examples was Lil Baby, an artist best known for a shallow vein of melodic trap, and not generally considered a formidable voice within any realm of the rap landscape. However, he proved all but his most firmly entrenched detractors wrong when he penned his protest trap song “The Bigger Picture” in solidarity with the protests.
It really is hard to overstate just how fantastically well written “The Bigger Picture” is, humbly capturing not only a sense of anger and grief but subtler and more pervasive notes of frustration, confusion and fear as well. Lil Baby’s flow is unexpectedly perfectly suited to the role of commentator of an endless numbing succession of infuriating tragedies, delivering his emotionally charged lyrics in a run-on stream of consciousness. Lil Baby has since said that he has no interest in becoming a social commentator, but with a single song he has proven his eloquence and given a significant voice to a generation and captured the mood of 2020 better than any other song released this year.
“I Know” by Polo G
One of the biggest rising stars of 2020 came in the form of Chicago trap crooner Polo G, who took one of the most oversaturated and homogenous genres and proved it still had the potential for an introspective and mature songwriter to carve out a distinctive and emotionally articulate sound of their own. Throughout his album The Goat, Polo paints a series of tragic and maudlin portraits of a harsh life growing up in an impoverished and dangerous environment. The most impactful moment of all comes with “I Know”, recounting the tragic life story of his best friend, his tender and effortlessly melodic voice delicately conveying the emotional devastation he has learned to live with. On some tracks on The Goat, Polo is let down by his production, but this couldn’t be further from the case with “I Know” which features a beautifully melodic weeping guitar-based beat that fits his vocal style and flows seamlessly.
“Bloodmoney” by Poppy
This year’s Grammy nominations were particularly controversial, featuring some surprise omissions that upset a lot of the internet and some artists as well. However, there were just as many surprise inclusions to be fairly happy about, including the female dominance of traditionally male genres like rock. One of the more notably gratifying inclusions was Poppy’s “Bloodmoney” receiving a nomination for Best Metal Performance for this very track.
The YouTube stars transition into metal music with I Disagree was shockingly smooth and assured, resulting in one of the best and most exciting records of the year. Deftly blending metal with industrial and noise music, with stamping and grinding breakdowns. Her bold and lurid personality fits the genre perfectly, and her swings at religious hypocrisy and patriarchy on this track are particularly incisive and acrid. I’ve never managed to get along with traditional metal music, and it’s only through the kind of experimentation showcased by Poppy that the genre is able to appeal, but Poppy does it so well that for the first time, a metal album became one of my favourite releases of the year.
“Bad Friend” by Rina Sawayama
One of the most criticised exclusions from the Grammys though was Rina Sawayama’s critically acclaimed debut Sawayama, a personal and glamorous blend of dance-pop, traditional pop, hyper pop and even metal, exploring her sexuality, ancestry, identity and personal relationships as well as wider themes such as environmentalism and consumerism. One of the most personal and tender moments on the record came with the single “Bad Friend”, exploring her guilt at having been somewhat of a fair-weather friend and failing to keep in touch over the years with those with whom she once shared a profound intimacy. The song-writing is replete with cutting details, and Rina’s husky voice beautifully articulates the dense cocktail of love, regret and nostalgic longing, as does the bittersweet production by Clarence Clarity. In any case, any artistic piece that simultaneously pays tribute to Carly Rae Jepsen and Akira Kurosawa is a unique treasure in my eyes.
So that is my perfect 10 from 2020. What would be on your list?