The tracks that brought some light to a dark year
As constant turmoil impacted so many throughout 2020, we were perhaps brought closer than ever to the music we listened to. These were the songs from artists big and small that soundtracked our year, providing an escape in the longest nights, a dancefloor in our bedrooms, an anthem in the midst of protest. These were the songs that kept us going, making us forget we were often listening alone.
50. Margot – Falling Between the Days
Alex Hannaway’s vocals are breathy and contemplative over warm guitar chimes on this single from Peckham's Margot, delivering vignettes of life before the floating sensation of the chorus drops the listener back into the state of "falling". There's a kind of helpless restlessness, "turning in bed" and seeing moments of life slip away, dreaming of a life that is now out of reach, instead searching for pictures of his now “rose tinted past”. 'Falling' is less of a sudden drop and more of a slow trickling away, watching the hands of a clock slowly rotate, or grains of sand dropping through an hourglass - the nether zone of confusion and uncertainty, a haltered feeling many have become all too familiar with.
- FIN COUSINS
49. Bel Cobain – Broken Bridge
Smoothness personified, precious little music sounded as effortlessly at ease as Bel Cobain’s ‘Broken Bridge’ this year. A lapping coastline of soft single-coils and distant horn pensivities wound itself around Bel Cobain’s irrepressibly beautiful vocal tones. Metaphors and introspective lyricism coalesced into an unmissable three minutes of vinyl-crackle and smoulder, as ‘Broken Bridge’ marked this artist as a voice of utmost importance in the UK underground.
- BEN WHEADON
48. Dope Lemon and Winston Surfshirt – Every day is a Holiday
When life gave us a pandemic, Australian singer-songwriter Angus Stone (Dope Lemon) made some very dope lemonade in the form of, ‘Every Day Is A Holiday’. A collaboration with fellow Aussie band Winston Surfshirt, this breezy tune just demands that you drop everything you’re worried about, crack open a beer, sit back and relax. Every aspect of this track is perfection- from the keys, to the drums, to the horns that come in at just the right time and create an atmosphere of lazy euphoria. Fans of psych-rock and funk-infused soul will thoroughly enjoy this song, though I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t. Oftentimes, tracks that feature other artists don’t do the word ‘collaboration’ justice, but this is far from the case on this track, as the hip-hop grooves and funk-rap vibe of Winston Surfshirt are clearly felt, and Angus Stone weaves in and out of focus. Both the artists have allowed each other's styles to influence and meld with one another, producing a single that can only be called an absolute fuckin' banger.
- TARA CHOUDHARY
47. GFRIEND - Crossroads
The epitome of dramatic, ‘Crossroads’ creates the perfect blend between deep emotion and catchiness. This is probably GFriend’s most emblematic song in terms of their orchestral pop style, fuelling the nostalgic elements of what used to be their style and their departure from it. GFriend is an anomaly in the K-Pop scene, and, dare I say in mass-produced pop songs worldwide, as they tend to use heavy strings, pianos and acoustic guitars mixed with heavy synthesisers for their song productions allowing them to have a very distinctive colour to their music. The melancholy that the group imbues into their songs creates a very stark dichotomy with the fast tempo and bounciness of the verses and chorus. Though cliché to state, this song borrows heavily from anime openings and J-Pop in its instrumentalization and it is exactly this that lends it such a dramatic tone and emotion. If this is your first time listening to K-pop, bear in mind that GFriend’s ‘Crossroads’ is a completely different experience to that of the more mainstream EDM filled industry.
- GUILLE FERNANDEZ
46. JON., Musaormuse – Soul II Soul
Best bassline of the year? Probably. JON. had an outrageous output in 2020, but in pulling together a devastatingly potent beat with verses shared with Musaormuse, ‘Soul II Soul’ stands out as the real pinnacle of JON.’s creativity this year - and that’s against some steep competition. It’s JON. at his absolute best, and with an artist as consistently inventive as this, hearing him at his best is nothing short of utterly joyous.
- BEN WHEADON
45. Mush – Revising my Fee
‘Revising My Fee’ is the unreasonably infectious opener on 3D Routine, the excellent debut from Leeds-based post-punk band Mush. It is no outlier on an album of stream-of-consciousness social commentary, with its meandering melodies, a jolting guitar riff, and frontman Dan Hyndman’s unconventional and unhinged vocal style. As oblique as Mush can be, they’re bold and expressive with enough kinks and quirks to have built an instantly recognisable sound. Deservedly one of their most popular songs, ‘Revising My Fee’ has been on repeat for me since it was first released. It’s a great tone-setter, a perfect introduction to both the album and the band, and ticks all the boxes - a catchy chorus you’ll never get out of your head, a firm rhythm section keeping the song afloat, and a two-minute guitar solo to round things off.
Above all else, ‘Revising My Fee’ is some tight, refined, gloriously cynical modern party-punk, and a fitting advert for another band who have spent 2020 developing their own brand of guitar music through prolific studio work instead of on a touring circuit. As we welcome in 2021 with so much uncertainty on the horizon, the obscure and enigmatic spittings of Dan Hyndman and Mush couldn’t feel more appropriate for today’s political landscape.
- ANTHONY FORD
44. Yard Act - Fixer Upper
Without a doubt, Yard Act’s ‘Fixer Upper’ is one of the most uniquely replayable songs of the year. Vocalist James Smith rambles over a polished groove in character as Graeme, a sort of smug know-it-all who “sincerely believes he’s from a country and generation that achieved the apex of everything so therefore can’t ever be wrong about anything”. On first listen, ‘Fixer Upper’ is a strange late night pub rant touching on self-made money and home improvement, but Yard Act have enough wit and imagination to develop the idea into a brilliant post-punk tune which is truly addictive. Smith’s portrayal of the protagonist is excellent, and as he barks out line after line of vapid Middle England nonsense, the music beneath him swells until eventually grinding to a halt. Alongside the monologue, there’s an instrumental for the band to be very proud of here. It’s a track that demands multiple listens. With the rare ability to make you laugh to yourself while dancing, the cutting irony of ‘Fixer Upper’ is a far more engaging and comfortable listen than being cornered by Graeme at the bar.
- ANTHONY FORD
43. Cassia - Do Right
To those of you who’ve heard me play this song incessantly for close to a calendar year, I’m not even remotely sorry. The adjustment in Cassia’s sonic direction has only intensified my love for their music, and ‘Do Right’ stands out as the true high point of an incredibly impressive year for the greatest band in the whole history of Macclesfield. The groove is infectious, the vocals contagious. It’s at once the most laid-back song of the year, and somehow compels me to move without giving my body the chance to say no. It is, and remains, an utterly fantastic track.
- BEN WHEADON
42. Marie Bashiru – Joyride
'Joyride' brings you on a journey with Marie Bashiru, tearing through coldness and taking you on the "straight and narrow" of a newly realised path. The musical aspects of her West African influences are instantly evident, and her voice is beautifully soulful and honeyed, trickling through a charming riff that flows intermittently with tambourines to form a delightful mass of percussion. It’s a journey that elucidates sweetness, companionship and earthliness, shifting gloriously into images of skies changing and clouds forming in rearranged symbols of newfound possibility, yet this expansive journey remains grounded, as the notion of a new beginning exists with the conscious admission that it also “feels a little difficult”. This was the perfect anthem in a moment we all are struggling to comprehend, an antidote to struggle. She offers you her hand and you can be forgiven for feeling that you can reach out to grasp it.
- FIN COUSINS
41. Bitch Falcon – Damp Breath
Bitch Falcon isn’t just the greatest band name ever conceived: they’re also an outrageously adept alt-rock group, responsible for one of the year’s very best rock albums. Contained within the exceptional LP that is Staring at Clocks, however, is an entirely uncontrollable three minute barrage of every jaw-dropping weapon in the Bitch Falcon arsenal. ‘Damp Breath’ has everything. It’s relentless in its energy, dripping in vocal charisma and boasts an eye-watering selection of tones. It’s everything rock music should be.
- BEN WHEADON
40. Lael Neale – Every Star Shivers in the Dark
'Every Star Shivers in the Dark' hides a poem between a mellow drum machine and atmospheric chords. Lael Neale is a songwriter who forces you to feel something with every aspect of her music. The lyric
"Why can't I love someone?"
instantly resonated with me. Its repetition combined with Neale’s simple and honest confession
"I'd like to love someone"
feels like she’s routinely searching for love, and will spend the rest of her life doing so. The sporadic conversations and spontaneous yet memorable interactions with strangers are romanticized in her head, and show a desperation for communication and love. Neale manages to get across these heart-rending emotions without letting her voice betray her, sounding soft and undemanding. I think this is beautiful- it allows the listener to truly acknowledge her sorrow. The lyrics
"I might be leaving you because I am a pilgrim too"
evoke the instability of being young: not knowing what you want, not knowing who you want, and feeling a complete numbness at not understanding why. This song means a lot to me, as I think it does to most people who discover it, and I can't wait to hear what Neale has in store for us next year.
- OLIVE ANNALISE
39. DEADLETTER - Fit For Work
‘Fit For Work’ is fantastic. It begins with a gentle plod, a beat that owes a lot to techno, and an ominous bassline, but soon it becomes self-explanatory and the barefaced vilification of the UK benefits system begins. The people unapologetically declared “fit for work” include a double amputee and a PTSD sufferer, as DEADLETTER explode into fits of dystopian jazz-punk - suggestive of Stockholm’s finest Viagra Boys - which are grim bursts of adrenaline and metaphors for the furious helplessness of being unfit for work but having to anyway. The tension of the hushed verses, the snarls of frontman Zac Woolley, the crazed splurges of jarring noise, the swagger and the spit, and the fiery political spirit are all here on just this one song, enough for DEADLETTER to have shown they are a force to be reckoned with. A worthy addition to the swelling list of exciting young bands part of the UK’s punk revival, when the album arrives from Yorkshire, we’ll be ready. Until then we’ll have to settle for ‘Fit For Work’ on repeat.
- ANTHONY FORD
38. Bickle - Naked
A song that obliterates absolutely anything that has the audacity to get in its way, Bickle’s major platform debut is perhaps the most confident entrance I’ve ever heard an underground artist make. It’s just downright offensive just how polished ‘Naked’ sounds.
It should have reverberated around disco balls and garish strobe lights throughout this hellscape of a year. It deserved to dominate dancefloors, but in the daydreams of freedom that teased me in the early days of lockdown, this was the song that played in my imagination on a never-ending loop.
- BEN WHEADON
37. Dua Lipa – Break My Heart
‘Break My Heart’ is the culmination of everything that makes Dua Lipa’s Mercury nominated Future Nostalgia so bloody good. From the INXS guitar sample to the dancefloor-shattering percussion layers, ‘Break My Heart’, in short, slaps. The entire album boasts some of the most watertight pop production of this year and ‘Break My Heart’ is no different. Dua Lipa’s vocals sit wonderfully on top of the 80s-stroke-disco instrumental. Despite Dua being a fantastic singer, the spotlight is directly on Andrew Watt’s (Post Malone, Miley Cyrus, 5SOS) production. While there aren’t huge amounts of intricate layering, the ‘less is more’ approach is perfect. The sound design is impeccable, from the disco claps to the subtle string riffs. Even if you aren’t a pop fan, it is virtually impossible to not tap your foot to this absolute bop. After the turbulent year that was 2020, I cannot wait to be on a light-up dance floor hearing this track blasted through the sound system.
- JAMES MELLEN
36. Caribou - Like I Loved You
I find it quite impossible to properly express the majesty of Caribou. The shining jewel in the crown of Dan Snaith’s 2020 album Suddenly, ‘Like I Loved You’ is as heart-crumpling; as emotionally devastating; as apocalyptically despondent as possible in the design of a song self-flagellatorially imagining an ex-partner in the embrace of a new lover. Combine that with Caribou’s trademark sonic sheen and the greatest guitar solo of the year (provided by Colin Fisher) and you are left with a song that should rightfully come to define an entire year of music.
- BEN WHEADON
35. MJ Cole – Cathedral
I’m desperate for people to listen to this song, and I'm devastated that someone else created it before I could. 'Cathedral' is an ambient, cinematic composition that will leave you processing an array of different emotions upon every listen. This song makes me think of long journeys on the motorway at night, the lights passing by, everything blurry and calm, but at times the emptiness brings a shade of worry and despair. It’s kind of reassuring to look at the cover art and have the image conjured up in my head be the image chosen to represent this song. MJ Cole knows what he’s doing; he knows exactly how he wants the listener to feel and has the skills to see it through. Having never heard of Cole’s work before this, I was surprised at the stark difference between his previous origins within the garage/house scene and this classical, orchestral-driven collection of music. He proves that people don't have to commit to creating the same thing for the rest of their lives, but should rather aim to create what they truly feel: no boundaries, no rules- just complete creative freedom. We should all take note.
- OLIVE ANNALISE
34. Samia – Big Wheel
On the standout single from her assured LP ‘The Baby’, Samia inflects her voice with all the balanced emotion of young adulthood, lilting through pain and acceptance in a single line on the chorus ‘I got bad news / but I didn’t fight’. Listing the current rhythms of her life alongside the lingering presence of relationships with old friends and ex-lovers, Samia crests conflicted feelings as well as the distance of time and space with a sighing delivery somewhere between melancholic and breezy. ‘I got coffee in the morning / and my mama in the night’ she sings, occupying that state between maturity and childhood that for many, the long weeks of lockdown brought into sudden focus. And yet it is in all these in-betweens that Samia finds herself moving forwards, striving for the simplicity of having old friends, ex-lovers in the rearview without leaning back to have conversations with them anymore.
- SAM HARDING
33. Thundercat – Dragonball Durag
Thundercat’s ‘Dragonball Durag’ is definitely one of the funkiest tracks of the year. The American bassist oozes cool as the track blends hilarious lyrics, smooth vocals and a wicked bassline creating a modern ballad. Thundercat’s Japanese album cover for It Is What It Is features a slogan saying, “Waves That’ll Beat Yo’ Ass” and he’s not wrong. It’s impossible to listen to this song without bobbing your head and/or tapping your feet. Thundercat is desperately trying to win over this girl by flexing new jewellery, cars and even a dragonball durag, but if it’s any consolation, he’s won us over in the process. While you’re at it, check out Thundercat’s music video for the song. It features Capri Suns, scooters, a huge Gucci belt and, of course, a dragonball durag. It’s hilarious.
- ALEX KUTSCHER
32. Moa Moa - Yellow Jacket
Will I ever shut up about underground gems moa moa? Probably not. Why? Just listen to ‘Yellow Jacket’ and you’ll understand. Oh my days, what a debut. It is impossible to remain indifferent after listening to this single; everything about it demands your attention: its metronomic drum beats, its reverberating vocals, its distorted bass – all of these elements synchronize to perfection. The rich, spiralling sound the band manages to produce as a result is guaranteed to engulf the senses of anyone who listens. And that is to say nothing of its wordplay.
The quarrel between lovers frontman James Ratcliffe builds throughout the duration of the song skilfully dodges every tired trope and boring conventionality in favour of a nuanced exploration of what love and commitment truly mean. ‘Yellow Jacket’ is an impressive feat of a song; it excels musically, lyrically, and even narratively. moa moa plays in an exciting new wavelength, and ‘Yellow Jacket’ stands as a bastion of everything great the underground has to offer.
- AINHOA SANTOS GOICOECHEA
31. Rosalia & Travis Scott – TKN
Discussions of Rosalía often overlook her metamorphic ability to embody the subjects of her songs. This year alone, she has transformed into the determined partner of an imprisoned man (‘Juro que’) and a self-destructive victim of abuse (‘Dolerme’) with impeccable credibility. But her role as a mafia boss in ‘TKN’ knocks both of these out of the park, and elevates the entire track to unprecedented levels.
This song is infinitely layered and an absolute joy to dissect. At face value, ‘TKN’ is an alternative raggaeton banger that packs one hell of a punch, partly thanks to Travis Scott’s gunshot-filled interlude and his impressively convincing Spanish (seriously, major kudos). Dig a little deeper, however, and you will find that the track’s sharp trap beat underpins Rosalía as she delves into the core of her character’s philosophy: be careful who you trust. Peel back yet another layer and you will find an impressive catalogue of themes being explored between the lines – family, motherhood, fame, community, and, ultimately, power. Much like Rosalía’s “mafiosa”, the emotional weight of this track hinges on its ability to keep its secrets close to its chest and let your imagination run wild. And that’s exactly what makes it one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard in 2020.
- AINHOA SANTOS GOICOECHEA
30. Jockstrap – Acid
In 39th is the avant-garde electronic pop masterpiece 'Acid' from London based duo Jockstrap, the lead single off of their Wicked City EP and their Warp Records initiation, absolutely justifying their place in one of the most legendary and exciting record label rosters in the UK. The incredible juxtaposition of Jockstrap’s music, and the distinct styles that Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye bring to the duo has never been more present than it is on this track, the song opening with stunning vocals from Ellery and enchanting violin playing of the kind she delivers for post-punk outfit Black Country, New Road, before Skye adds his unique and captivating production style, with a rare vocal appearance as well. Jockstrap continue to wed this incredible combination of romantic classical composition and modern glitch-pop production and produce by far one of the most interesting listens of the year.
- JOE DAVIS
29. Jazmine Sullivan – Lost One
Jazmine Sullivan's ballad 'Lost One', her solo return after a six year hiatus, wells with regret through every gasp and flutter. The sparse instrumental palette is parched, an arid guitar gently chiming through a few backing vocals as she traces through memories like a finger over a still open wound, her crystalline verse splitting with the rawness of the mournful request "don't have too much fun without me". The dazzling harmonies become self recriminating: “I know that that’s too much to ask/I know that I’m a selfish bitch”, and as her vocals become throatier, her voice dissipates as if she has said everything she could. It's a crevasse of emotion opened by the anguish of a singer able to find striking intimacy in her own exposed fragility.
- FIN COUSINS
28. Mac Miller – Good News
Mac Miller’s ‘Good News’ is one of the biggest tearjerkers on the list. Released posthumously, Mac Miller’s Circles was revered for its sincerity and maturity. The peaceful instrumental, that strangely makes the listener feel at home, is contrasted by Miller’s casual admittance of guilt, mistakes and optimism. His sulky tone is extremely relatable, “so tired of being so tired”, and reveals the song’s brilliance: its authenticity. Miller hasn’t got the perfect voice, but it’s perfect for the song and the emotions he’s conveying. His raspy delivery of “there’s a whole lot more for me waiting” honestly just makes me want to cry. I don’t want his death to define his career, but it’s totally unavoidable on this track. Rest easy Mac, you left a beautiful legacy.
- ALEX KUTSCHER
27. King Krule – Cellular
One of those openers that keeps you playing an album on repeat, ‘Cellular’ sets up King Krule’s brutalist sprawl of a soundscape with a scatter of dial tones and liquid frequencies above moody guitars that scrape together like electricity pylons. On an album somewhere between a train-smash and an airport lounge, Archy tears images from a machine world of cages and borders, tuning past the derelict airwaves of inner-city alienation he wandered through on his past albums towards more global transmissions of the huddled and desperate. There’s a French girl in his head, a massacre across the ocean and a saxophone rousing his scowls into wounded fervour, the King has never sounded this wired.
- SAM HARDING
26. Jay Electronica & Jay Z – Flux Capacitor
After his emergence in 2009 Jay Electronica faded into the background, a few sparse features scattered throughout the next decade being the only time his head emerged from the murky depths of an industry he often criticised. Faith driven LP A Written Testimony was completely unprecedented, a welcome surprise for fans who had clung to every syllable. 'Flux Capacitor' is one of the six tracks produced by Electronica himself, and he provides unsparing production; consistently erratic, trancelike, using a sample from Rihanna’s ‘Higher’ from 2016's ANTI and cycling it behind Tom Waits style clanking percussion, moving through fragmented swirls to concoct a glitchy backdrop. Jay Z’s 6th of 8 remarkable album appearances is faultless, as both Jays spit in ice cold synergy, their words glinting like razor sharp diamonds slicing through the fabric of the production, a hectic, inexorable onslaught. The track splinters and glistens with arrogant lyricism more tightly woven than a Cuban link chain and both MCs are at their animated best, exercising unparalleled authority through each line, collecting yet another gleaming gold plated award for their mantelpiece. They must be running out of room.
- FIN COUSINS
25. Rina Sawayama – XS
Wow – I mean, for real, WOW. This damn song is an instant hit. As soon as I heard ‘XS’ I clicked on the repeat button and listened to the song about 50 times before listening to more of Rina Sawayama’s music. ‘XS’ is an experimental melting pot of different musical genres and they all work perfectly together to create this fun masterpiece. It's a blend of early 2000s pop (HEAVILY inspired by Britney Spears’s ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’) and rock music that keeps the listener interested and on edge as to what happens throughout the course of the son. Blending these with a little R&B and electropop, which means that the song creates a really awesome avant-pop fusion.
Not only is the composition of the song awe-striking in design, but its message proves extremely relevant to our contemporary society with Sawayama criticising late capitalism and the way it influences individuals into indulging themselves in the excess and consumerism. Sawayama expresses a deep interest and advocacy towards the fight against climate change wanting to highlight the deep hypocrisy of individuals as well as how hard it is to express the chaos that post-truth society has caused regarding the topic of climate change.
- GUILLE FERNANDEZ
24. The Japanese House & Justin Vernon – Dionne
The standout track on the spare, stirring four-track EP from The Japanese House, ‘Dionne’ sees Amber Bain singing in the aftermath of a breakup, haunted by her inability to separate the past and present. With Justin Vernon on a chorus so comforting it makes you want to hug yourself for all you’ve ever gone through alone, the track tempers the pangs of pain and solitude felt after seeing your old lover or being reminded of her by a song— as per the reference to Dionne Warwick’s hit ‘Walk on By’— with the harmonising of these two songwriters. For even as the tears fall, the strings that pick up and tug the song to heart-wrenching release make the line "you’re alone with this one" feel like a moment of hard-won clarity, as long-awaited and and exquisite as the meeting of the Japanese House and Bon Iver.
- SAM HARDING
23. Noname - Song 33
Noname's ‘Song 33’, produced by the one and only Madlib, sheds a light on a plethora of American (and global) issues in only a minute (and 9 seconds). Published as a response to J. Cole's 'Snow on tha Bluff', Noname claims to regret posting it as she says her ego got the best of her. Whilst she may regret giving J. Cole the time of day, ‘Song 33’ combines conscious lyrics that draw attention to real issues, such as George Floyd’s murder and trans women murders, with Madlib’s fantastic production- a wonderful jazz-inspired hip hop beat with clean high hats and a subtle, yet effective bassline. Despite being such a short track, Noname fills it with double entendres that unravel America’s ugly truths. I’d encourage any listener to check out ‘Song 33’s Genius entry as it not only shows how profound her lyrics are, but also can illuminate some events or situations you didn’t know about before. As Noname says herself, she is “the new vanguard”.
- ALEX KUTSCHER
22. Palace - I'll Be Fine
If I had it my way, Palace's 'I’ll Be Fine' would feature in every sad film scene to exist. It’s a beautiful song, uplifting in some instances, devastating in others. "Happy-sad" is the term that comes to mind when I hear it. The lyrics "I’ll be fine" promise hope and optimism, but the contrast to the lyrics "Sorry that I'm inconsistency" is utterly heart-wrenching. The light, wispy vocals paired with the soft acoustic guitar are doing everything in their power to emancipate nostalgia, conjuring up images of past relationships; lost loves; moments that we cannot get back. The drawn out lyric "Remember it's always you and me" is heartbreaking, particularly as the closing statement of the song. Somehow, suddenly, the love story is over, but the protagonist still has hope, perhaps false hope, and wants their lover to remember the good parts of the relationship. I think many listeners can identify with these words, it's one of the best pieces of music to come out of 2020.
- OLIVE ANNALISE
21. Charli XCX - forever
Nasty, loud synths and hooks galore, ‘forever’ is easily one of the best tracks in Charli XCX’s catalogue. The production is loud and noisy but retains the polish and shine that previous LP Charli boasted. ‘forever’ is the perfect marriage of distorted hyperpop tones and Charli’s talent for writing a fantastic melody. As well as being one of the best on how i’m feeling now, it is also one of the most interesting and unique pop tracks of 2020. Longtime collaborators A.G Cook and BJ Burton absolutely slay the production on this lockdown anthem. The synths are nasty but delicate, and Charli’s vocals are mixed beautifully. Delicate layers of synthesisers are juxtaposed with driven basses and drums, which on paper should not work. But it just does. Despite the ear worm choruses and verses, Charli’s signature speaker-destroying flair shines through with a ridiculously heavy outro that is mean enough to even make a metalhead pull a face. Most were sceptical of Charli XCX’s decision to create an entire album in six weeks, in isolation. But the end project is one of the most exciting pop projects of the year, and ‘forever’ is the perfect example of what ‘how i’m feeling now’ is all about.
- JAMES MELLEN
20. Tony Allen & Hugh Masekela – We’ve Landed
It’s really bittersweet to come to terms with ‘We’ve Landed’ and Rejoice as among the final musical expressions of late geniuses Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela. Entirely timeless, the unbelievable rhythmic sense and technical ability of Allen remains astounding for a drummer close to 70 years old at the time of recording. Hearing Allen speak has this paradox of emotions, somehow both comforting and difficult to process in the months following his passing. What remains is an astonishing collection of work, and a song that truly encapsulates the genius of both Allen, and the improvisatory inventiveness of Masekela as a perfect collaborator.
- BEN WHEADON
19. Songhoy Blues – Worry
The best rock band in the world are from Mali, and ‘Worry’ shows just how good Songhoy Blues are. Between performances from Garba Touré - easily one of the world’s greatest guitarists - and the emphatic defiance of lead singer Aliou Touré, the message of ‘Worry’ screams out as just one more demonstration of Songhoy Blues proclaiming loudly from the rooftops in the expression of uplifting philosophy and stellar blues/desert/rock hybridised musical forms. Also, it sounds fucking sick.
The song screams out with an irrepressible energy. Wherever you turn to in the track you’re met by more and more volatile expressivity, balancing intensely precise drumming sporadics with a ballistic missile of a vocal performance. It’s actually genius.
- BEN WHEADON
18. Freddie Gibbs – God is Perfect
'God Is Perfect' is a hard-hitting luxury rap banger from their Grammy nominated collaborative album Alfredo. One of the most consistent and high-profile current rappers working with a legendary hip-hop producer who somehow manages to get better 20 years into his career results in a track here that matches either of their best works to date. The Alchemist provides Freddie Gibbs with a lavish and rich instrumental featuring haunting piano and eerie, ethereal horns and an echoing drumbeat creating a mysterious hazy atmosphere for the track, it just couldn’t sound more elegant. Gibbs raps about his drug dealing past and references his lucky escape from a targeted shooting at one of his shows in 2014, using more flows on this one track than some rappers do on their whole album, with each flow riding the instrumental as smooth and effortlessly as the next. Both rapper and producer only appear to be improving with each project, and this track fully deserves its spot on our list.
- JOE DAVIS
17. Field Medic & Pickleboy - talkin johnny & june (your arms around me)
I don’t really think I have anything more to add in my utter devotion to this song. You know when you encounter a song, and you just know it’s going to follow you for the rest of your life? A song that, every single time you press play, it’s as if you’re hearing it for the very first time? That’s ‘talkin johnny & june (your arms around me)’ for me. A duet sung between Field Medic and ‘Pickleboy’ (Alex Menne of Great Grandpa fame), the audible sound of the tapedesked, single microphone recording of this impossibly intimate performance pushes me to tears every damn time.
It defies description no matter how hard I try. It’s a song that sounds like a VHS tape of some distant memory, otherwise forgotten. Something inexpressibly familiar, yet a colourfully illuminative expression of someone else’s love. It’s enchanting in its sheer simplicity. With just one guitar beneath a houseplant orchard of intertwining harmonies, the authenticity of Field Medic’s lyricism, met by Pickleboy’s wondrous performance, marks ‘talkin johnny & june’ as one of the year’s very best songs. It’s mesmerising.
- BEN WHEADON
16. Perfume Genius - On The Floor
The ornate and ever versatile pop poet Perfume Genius was at the peak of his anthem creation in 2020. 'On The Floor' deals with queer love, deploying male pronouns throughout, over bubbling 80s synth pop. The buoyancy of the track, sweetly bouncing across a bassline from Pino Palladino does not detract nor conceal the intensity of the lyrics, which brush through the torments of yearning to give in to the fervid excitement and thrill gripping a body. The sticky chorus is a declaration of crossing a lover’s name out on a page, to conceal the intensity of his bodily craving as ‘On the Floor’ becomes delicately shameful, dealing with an imagined world, breathily detailing the object of his desire which remains intangible, fading before his eyes. This feels like a parody though, with the teasing suggestion he can "pray" these feelings away. The heat of the instrumental and the baroque vividness of his imagination makes clear that this was never possible.
- FIN COUSINS
15. Run the Jewels – Walking in the Snow
The droning guitar that crackles through the start of sci-fi, in your face heavyweight 'Walking in the Snow' is pure Run The Jewels; brash, braggadocious and utterly unapologetic, like something from the androgynous guitarist swinging off the back of a truck in Mad Max: Fury Road. The two are swinging for the fences with one aim in mind: shake even the most inactive of listeners out of their complacency.
They are at their most urgent here, undertaking a series of verbal attacks on the media’s coverage of police brutality against black people in the US, describing the world becoming desensitised by overexposure to another person’s trauma, as their lived experience is broadcast for the world to see. Killer Mike’s third verse describes a society “robbed of empathy, replaced with apathy”, after choking out the words of Eric Garner and George Floyd and pointing a finger in accusation: “You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me”. His voice prickles with urgency over the unyielding dystopian instrumental from the ever prolific EL-P. It is moments like this, so concise in active protest, that the 45 year old duo feel their most essential. We have never needed them more.
- FIN COUSINS
14. Keep Dancing Inc – Start Up Nation
Parisian trio Keep Dancing Inc managed to carve out a place for themselves in the 80s synth influenced pop music that found itself thrust to the forefront of 2020. A few notes and heavily distorted grooves punctuate 'Start Up Nation', the opener to Embrace. It's a dig at the business moguls capable of laughing in the face of the unemployed with the leering question "why don't you get a job?", in a mocking “hail to the start up nation”. They satirise the attitude of a world of innovation, entrepreneurship and neoliberal late capitalism. It’s infectiously anthemic, hailing in images of wall street pinstripe power suits, skyscrapers, thick ties, stock portfolios and ‘My Daily Routine for Peak Productivity’ YouTube videos. Note the 80s influences and the result is very American Psycho, a brilliant caricature of the ever omniscient prevalence of yuppie culture.
- FIN COUSINS
13. Deftones – Urantia
‘Urantia’ was one of the highlights of Deftones’ return to form Ohms released in September. It’s instantly at home in a “best of Deftones” playlist, in line with the band’s mission statement: show everyone metal songs can be velvety and smooth as well as loud and heavy and still sound stunning. The production on Ohms is top-drawer all the way through, but it just makes ‘Urantia’ so powerful. The main riff which opens and closes the song is thick and explosive, an homage to the band’s thrash influences which wouldn’t be out of place on the formative Around The Fur. There’s a big part played by Frank Delgado on keys, the electronic elements playing off the guitar and a brief mid-song trip-hop break, and some great vocals from Chino Moreno - his final two lines before the song’s crushing end are quintessential Deftones - without the band or producer Terry Date putting a foot wrong. The phenomenal ‘Urantia’ can hold its own amongst Deftones’ best, which is a tremendous accolade in itself. Definitely one of the best songs I’ve heard this year.
- ANTHONY FORD
12. Sufjan Stevens - America
Sufjan Steven’s lead single and final track on our September album of the month The Ascension is a haunted 12 minutes of rhetorical questions, biblical allusions, and a tidal wave of percussion slowly gathering pace in a symphonic build. This is a crisis of faith, a "fever of light in the land of opportunity", it’s an entire landscape attempting to capture the pain of a nation, with the anthemic chorus "don’t do to me what you did to America", swelling with dense orchestration which splutters into muted, sombre echoing vocals and the murmur of a piano.
After all the sweeping questions, the yearnings of faith and glory, 'America' is left open, alone, contemplative. This landscape asks all the questions but gives few answers, leaving little ground for navigation. Perhaps the one comfort in the midst of uncertainty is the layered voices, the syncopated cries of voices in unison, pushing against the flickering synths in the background. The bareness of the sonic landscape forms a mirage, but the climactic twinkling swells point to some kind of salvation, beckoning the listener to stumble forwards, looking for water.
- FIN COUSINS
11. Lianne La Havas – Can't Fight
While every single song on London- based artist Lianne La Havas’s self-titled EP delivers pure excellence, ‘Can’t Fight’, which was co-written and produced by Mura Masa, is my personal favourite. Combining a buoyant guitar line with La Havas’s effortless croons, the song displays her musical prowess and gives her songwriting talent a place to shine. With this track, La Havas beautifully illustrates the familiar feeling of “knowing something is not good, but not being able to stop doing it”, as she said in a statement, referring to relationships that are hard to walk away from. If anything, ‘Can’t Fight’ shows that while matters of the heart may be difficult to control, her fingers and voice know exactly what they’re doing. Despite the complex subject matter of the track, it invokes a sense of classic soulful joy throughout because of La Havas’s ability to add a groovy edge to anything she creates.
- TARA CHOUDHARY
10. Christine and the Queens – People, I’ve been Sad
Chris finds intimacy in her declaration, baring her wounds in a fearless admission that sounds quietly self-assured: 'People, I've been Sad'. There are the elements instantly recognisable as hers, the wide spaces and pauses to enunciate and draw attention to phrases, a call and response chorus, vocal inflections and concise songwriting over effervescent slow synth pop. She laments her childhood experiences in her native French as a string section bristles beneath her voice. It’s as if she opens a door and invites you into her past, and you can’t help but sit on the edge of a bed with her and marvel at her plaintive admission to you. She narrates the feeling of dissipating, missing, a certain loneliness synonymous with the periods of isolation we have all experienced, prompting messages and assurances across social media to reach out, to talk when struggling. There are no grand resolutions here, just the power in the recognition of her own sadness, and sometimes, that’s enough.
- FIN COUSINS
9. Bob Dylan - Murder Most Foul
The Nobel prize winning Bob Dylan’s first song in eight long years did not disappoint. In this 17 minute epic, John F Kennedy’s assassination is strewn amongst references to Woodstock, the Beatles, Shakespeare tragedies and comedies in what is simultaneously an English students dream and worst nightmare. The arrangement is atmospheric and distant, a haze of randomly tumbling piano keys and soft drums and violins, a soft pillow for Dylan’s voice, which avoids any pretence of a melody or singalong chorus, instead forming a drawn out recitation. The 1963 JFK assassination looms over Dylan’s shoulder, an event of tragedy he felt compelled to address in a song for the first time here, growling “Shot down like a dog in daylight, They blew out the brains of the king/Thousands were watching, no-one saw a thing”. Dylan begins requesting songs, a life long catalogue of influences and peers as 'Murder Most Foul' postulates the way music can comfort us in national trauma - the speaker's requests are yearns for something to cover up the hole in his chest for just a short while. It’s a circular, wonderful assertion that you can kill the head of a country, attempt to remove any catalyst of progression, but the heart and soul of the world remains. The song closes by inscribing itself on this lineage, anthologising through the request to play “The Blood-Stained Banner,” and finally "play Murder Most Foul.” Dylan came up with a celebration of the utility of music when we needed it most, telling us all “turn the radio on; don’t touch the dials.”
- FIN COUSINS
8. Laura Marling – Held Down
'Held Down', the lead single from Laura Marling's excellent recent album Song For Our Daughter is as raw and emotional as any song you’re likely to have heard this year, but it’s also just so complete and perfectly crafted. The stripped back track features a powerful acoustic guitar strumming with a prominent sliding bassline, angelic vocal harmonies and dainty loose drops of piano sporadically throughout. A harmonising electric guitar is also added as the track develops, wailing in the background of the chorus. But what makes this song so incredible is Laura’s effortless vocal performance. Her sombre, dry and almost sarcastic delivery on the verses contrasts the exasperated emotional tone on the bridge beautifully well, elevating the powerfulness of her lyrical poetry. She sings of being left by a partner out of the blue, leaving her with feelings of longing, nostalgia, frustration, and bitterness. Her impressive vocal range stands out, but it’s her sharp delivery of lines such as "It’s a cruel kind of twist that you’d leave like this/just drop my wrist and say “Well that’s us done’’’ that truly tug at the heartstrings of listeners. The beauty of Laura’s music is derived in her ability to make her personal traumas or events so deeply heart wrenching to listeners who may not even relate to them. Laura Marling continues to be a brilliant and under-appreciated voice in British folk and 'Held Down' is easily one of the most stunning songs of the year.
- JOE DAVIS
7. Fiona Apple – Heavy Balloon
"I spread like strawberries
I climb like peas and beans
I've been sucking it in so long
That I'm busting at the seams"
Fiona Apple growls on the chorus of 'Heavy Balloon', an exploration of the psychological strain of depression, while Sebastian Steinberg’s bass holds a tactile, supple presence. Fiona finds space for retrospection of recovery without bitterness, using her past as a method of discovering her own solidarity. The bedroom acoustics keep the track rough at the edges, with boxy drums giving reverberating depth, reinforcing the metaphorical weight that the 'balloon' of psychological anguish presses upon her. This is an eruption from the spirit, a dance along the tenuous line between triumph and agony. Fiona is wildly, inexhaustibly snarling, assured in her impulses, a testament to an artist bristling with the intense agency of freedom. ‘Heavy Balloon’ is a cathartic celebration of this state of being, her voice biting down on itself, chewing and spitting out words, viciously demanding that she is heard. It's a song so urgent it sounds as though it had been lodged deep in her chest.
- FIN COUSINS
6. Arlo Parks – Black Dog
Arlo Park didn’t just flourish in 2020, with ‘Black Dog’ she seemed to respond to the year’s isolating anxieties for us in real-time— making one of the most quietly urgent songs to ever try and reach out across the gap between two people. Helping a friend through their depression can be a fog of unspoken emotions, one which Arlo’s voice soothes past in her simple promise ‘I would do anything / to get you out your room’, as fire escapes and corner stores sketch out the slight perimeters of our lockdown worlds as well as the escapist contours that the song traces. The chords that accompany her lyrics are intimate, addictive, but it’s their contrast with the icy piano keys that create a hauntingly bleak landscape against which Arlo’s vocals burn with feeling. With her debut album slated for January, Arlo’s already essential presence amongst our generation’s singer-songwriters makes for a hopeful sight across the other side of 2020. But in the meantime, here is a song that reminds you of the need just to get outdoors, buy some fruit, and call your friends to check how they’re doing.
- SAM HARDING
5. Moses Sumney - Virile
'Virile' is an ethereal toast at the funeral of pointless toxic masculinity, the fading of virility, the destruction of fitting "right in", with the amping up of "the masculine". It’s a "cheers to the patriarchs", as Moses Sumney raises a glass over the heavily distorted guitars echoing cacophonous strikes of a deep pounding drum after the harp, pointed keys and wordless, throaty vocals that form the shadowy opening. It’s cerebral, erotic, the mingling of gender, sexuality, sensation, the rendering of the desire and disgust of life to become so malleable that they melt into a mercury-like swill of indistinguishable emotion. He feels every thought, every syllable, in an intense rush of energy, displaying a self-assured power in the amorphous carnality of detachment and fluidity. Moses escapes the throws of traditional romanticised love songs, pushing his artistry into some place between fleshly lust and towards autonomy, infusing the callous and the tender, the soulful and impassioned.
- FIN COUSINS
4. The Weeknd – Blinding Lights
Are you surprised? I think it is just common consensus that The Weekend’s ‘Blinding Lights’ is an excellent song that has absolutely smashed the charts in 2020. ‘Blinding Lights’ hit all the right spots, building itself on the trendy nostalgia of the 1980s and mixing it with the more modern musical genres of synth-pop and electropop. Though the retro trend has been making itself more and more trendy the last couple of years, ‘Blinding Lights’ is one of the songs that has allowed 2020 to be a year in which the resurgence of retro has consolidated itself and allowed the sound to permeate the modern music landscape. ‘Blinding Lights’ is a nihilistic throwback that takes you into a different world in which time feels at a standstill. It is a shame this song was released during a worldwide pandemic as I would’ve loved to dance to this at a club. It's pure Abel Tesfaye, dark, brooding and completely addictive.
- GUILLE FERNANDEZ
3. Terrace Martin and Denzel Curry feat Kamasi Washington, G Perico & Daylyt - Pig Feet
In the midst of a global pandemic and half a year away from the US election, a barrage of fire, hopelessness and anger was metastasising from the epicentre of Minneapolis. Coverage flooded through social media as the anger developed into the largest protest in the history of the United States, with 2000 cities in over 60 countries holding protests following the death of George Floyd, another example in a long line of institutional violence against black Americans. The protests aimed to inspire a cultural reckoning on racial injustice, and in the midst of this desperation Terrace Martin gathered a collection of black artists to create a song flaring with a fusion of jazz and sweltering hip hop.
‘Pig Feet’ is an anthem created with the aim of distilling this anger. Martin described himself as feeling "hurt, fearless, angry, aware" ready to protect, as a sign held up in the accompanying video suggested, "by any means necessary". The video goes on in silence to honour the innocent black people killed by police officers, their names memorialised and thrust to attention. Gun shots announce the track’s ear-splitting arrival as sound bites of desperate voices swirl through gripping verses by Denzel Curry and Daylyt. The sound of a helicopter whirring menacingly overhead is recalled later by Kamasi Washington's syncopated saxophone flowing over the percussive fervour, condensing the terror of conflict and bearing resemblance to Jimi Hedrix's expression of bombs dropping in Vietnam on his cover of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at Woodstock in 1969. This is not a track of peacefulness, but a lamentation of bubbling frustration, the anthologising of rage, the rushing intensity of a movement that refused to remain unheard.
- FIN COUSINS
2. Phoebe Bridgers – Garden Song
On an album where stars are Chinese satellites and the sky incandesces with chemtrails, the line between the natural and artificial world is both fucked-up and beautiful. On ‘Garden Song’ these vaporous outlines are the surroundings to Phoebe Bridgers at the height of her songwriting powers, sounding both heartfelt and sardonic in a single turn of phrase as she daydreams through the hedge-maze of her mind and memories: "Someday, I'm gonna live In your house up on the hill And when your skinhead neighbour goes missing I'll plant a garden in the yard". Details appear and fade upon the same image in a moving phantasmagoria of time: the house she imagines one day living in becomes the same one she grew up in, until it burns in the fire that destroyed it— leaving behind only the notches in the doorframe that used to mark her height as a kid. All this is set to watery instrumentals that flow with fuzzy eddies of static, like a gently rippling reflection in which growth is visible in the simultaneous image of what once was.
There’s always been a larger narrative lurking behind the dark edges of Phoebe’s music, and on a song as personal and surreal as this it’s one that that looms across her subconscious— of living in a world where corporations turn everything to plastic, and alt-right ideologies go undisguised amidst the veneers of suburbia. But ‘Garden Song’ doesn’t wallow or drown in these realities, instead it turns them to ghosts and finds peace in a haunted universe.
- SAM HARDING
1. Yves Tumor - Gospel for a New Century
Yves Tumor hailed unrelentingly for freedom in an intense, almost spiritual transformation. With a new persona somewhere between Prince and Marilyn Manson, the blistering ‘Gospel for a New Century’ was their 2020 magnum opus.
The opener to Heaven To A Tortured Mind unearths rough, gritty horn samples and ladles them gorgeously over vast, cavernous guitars to build a decadent, sweaty arc between psych-rock and modern pop. Images of heartlessness, a lost summer, and the longings of deep adoration flare up in small delusions and fade, their opaqueness only creating more curiosity. This 'Gospel' is a house of mirrors; some concave, some convex, as the world is stretched and distorted until reality seems gloriously intangible and moves into modes of sinister eroticism, layered vocals rasping with guttural chokes of love, loss, and damnation that remain embedded deep in the visceral depth of the guitar and drums. The accompanying Isamaya Ffrench directed video plunges into an androgynous seething underworld, the setting for a Yves to deliver a sermon atop a throne adorned with two devils horns, an eruption of bodily liminality, a celebration of a rich tapestry of transgender representation in popular music, with evocative musical performances dedicated to experimentation with physical forms. This world is not a fetishism, nor is it lust driven, this is a demonstration of the capacity of beauty as an object and catalyst for desire to transcend corporeal forms, "this ain’t by design, girl" Yves declares, "say what you really mean".
‘Gospel’ harks back to a time when rock was devilish, tempestuous and hedonistic. It’s a crackling bonfire of a track which manages to perfectly distil chaos in the prowling of sensuous impulses, as chests tighten, and sweat drips into bleary eyes in dark nightclubs. "How much longer till December?" Yves cries - after a year that has careered into one roadblock after another, we don’t need the specific source of this longing. We are all simply seduced into longing with him.
- FIN COUSINS
Hear all 50 of our favourite songs of 2020 with our spotify playlist below:
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and co-edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
This article was edited by Fin Cousins, a postgrad literature student studying at King’s College, London. He loves sport, music and writing and he is still waiting for Love Island to accept his application. He also made our logo
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Thanks to our wonderful contributing writers:
Ainhoa Santos Goicoechea (pronounced "I-know-ah") is a culturally confused Creative Writing postgraduate student from the Basque Country, Spain. She is passionate about film, music and politics, and she should probably know more than she does about all three.
Alex Kutscher is an English Literature graduate from King’s College London and founder of TPLC Sports. He plays basketball and watches Chelsea on the weekend while praying that Kepa never plays for them again.
Anthony Ford is a Maths student, spending every Saturday watching Burnley attempt to avoid relegation. He calms himself down by listening to music, playing guitar, or shouting at people on the TV.
Guille Fernandez is a music lover who studied the cello for almost 10 years before moving to the UK to study English literature at King's College, London.
James Mellen is currently studying songwriting and production and is based near Bristol. Interests include silly effects pedals, Yorkshire tea and 100 gecs.
Joe Davis is a Cardiff University graduate currently doing a panic masters in Public Policy. He procrastinates religiously via music, politics and football. Find him on insta.
Olive Annalise is a music production student from Bristol whose interests include poetry, sound design and film. In her spare time, she indulges in wine mom humor and enjoys telling people she can speak French, although her Duolingo owl would disagree.
Sam Harding is a student at York and an enthusiast of mosh pits. He is trying to marry music with writing but is running out of onomatopoeia. Life soundtrack includes underground rap and electronic bleep bloops.
Tara Choudhary is a third-year student at King’s College London, who euphemises her indecisiveness by saying she studies the Liberal Arts. She enjoys music, theatre and basically anything she can categorise as “not math”.