What’s the point of writing an end of year list? Like what matters about the calendar ticking over, a decimal changing at the end of the date in dismal acknowledgement that another twelve months have slunk by like a guilty flatmate coming in from a one night stand with your ex, stinking of cheap wine and their brand of fags.
I don’t know. This year, which has seemed unending, is already hanging over like a truly apocalyptic new year’s day, threatening you with a bleak, dry January where your efforts to avoid indulgence reveal only that that makes you no better or hotter as a human being.
In a good year, it’s — oh, for fuck’s sake, none of us can remember what a good year was like and if we could it would be some sort of bitter taunt to the present and even grimmer, the future extending like an endless, bored, broke, lonely Sunday.
In a bad year maybe an end of year list could be expurgatory. Getting rid of the memories of songs that helped you sob brokenly over your life falling apart, celebrating the times it even felt good to feel that, the satisfyingly painful catharsis of survival. This year isn’t going to give any of us that generosity; you might, guiltily, be hanging on by more than threads and aware that’s as good as it’s going to get or you might be in the abyssal pit, tumbling into ever colder, thicker, darker waters without somehow being allowed the dignity of drowning.
Normally I’d do a bit here about how this isn’t the best songs of 2020 because attempting to decide that is like saying you’ll rank the best cities of 2020 as though you could have comprehensively reviewed them all, in hour-stopover visits to try and collect every one. Normally, I’d say this is simply and fully subjectively the songs that have slapped for me this year.
I don’t even know if it is. I don’t even know if I like these songs or actually enjoy them but they’ve been what I’ve listened to in this hellish shitbox of a year. Well, that’s a lie actually — overwhelmingly, the song I’ve listened to this year has been Happiness by Blood Orange but even I can’t quite justify including it in a ‘songs of 2020’ just because it’s sad, fucked-up, sexy, broken optimism feels like it’s holding up a mirror to my masochistic insistence at hope.
But these are the other things that have been a vibe. Here’s a playlist.
Before we proceed it’s probably worth knowing I just listen to sad electropop about dissociating at parties so if you were hoping for anything else: don’t.
25. The Kite String Tangle — NORTH
I’ve really liked the Kite String Tangle since 2014 when Given The Chance kept coming up on Spotify radio while I was lying in bed, hungover, after the first few sleepovers with the guy who’d become my ex-husband. There’s a really specific form of horny melancholy that they do and it just scratches at my brain like that viciously satisfying self-harm of really going in on a mosquito bite you know you should leave alone.
This is happier and more grateful (you face me north/set me back on course/light a fire in my eyes) than this year feels like it should have been. I have another ex now, we broke up in January for good reasons but are, for 2020 reasons, still living together and this song feels like the weird satisfaction of cuddling even though that’s kind of a fucked up thing to still be doing.
‘Kind of a fucked up thing to still be doing’ pretty much sums up a lot of this year and this song is tender with it, devotional and loving in a way that jars up against so many of the emotions. But at the end of it, as we’re all still speaking through desperate fucking Zoom calls to people we miss, while the aches that have grown common flare with festive agonies about the ones it’s worth enduring another grim day for the optimism you really will see them again, it’s not just cheap sentimentality to say we do still love.
Absence makes the heart grow stalactite ridges of hard, calcified pain and isn’t a virtue but how much it hurts does speak to how deeply you mean it. I miss my friends, I miss my job, I miss a sense of time passing in events rather than scratched-off calendar leaves, like the tally on a jail cell and y’know, you miss all that too.
This song is warm and longing, for those people that, if they couldn’t keep you sane at least anchored you here. And it’s got a bit of house piano, not a lot more you can ask for at this stage.
24. TOPS — Colder & Closer
There’ve been some guilty moments of carefree pleasure this year. It feels bad even saying that.
I walked the nine or so miles to Tottenham to see a friend, a few months back, when it was burning hot and I wore just a jumpsuit that’s much too short and somehow ended up on Wanstead Flats with very few people around, able to fucking gambol like a carefree baby goat not a woman too old to have spent the year worrying about paying my credit card bill.
This song was on my release radar at the time, in all its sparkly 80s pop glory. It’s too shiny and lovely for this year, too chromed and hedonistic in the way it doesn’t apologise for being beautiful and totally throwaway.
23. Cut Copy — Like Breaking Glass (Jacques Lu Cont remix)
I work in motorsport and the jump out of the car/jump out of the car/ooohhh-ooohhh bit of this goes round my head constantly.
22. pluko, Panama — higher
I’m quite an optimistic person. Well, that’s not quite true — I’m relentlessly optimistic, insanely so in the sense that the logical thing to do would have been to sweep it all aside in favour of cynicism years ago.
But I haven’t. And I actually think most of us are like that. The human condition is persistence and against all odds we carry on imagining futures to sustain that. We all think, genuinely, that there will be a week after all this when things have calmed down a bit and we’ll answer that email taking up brain space for six months now.
This sounds kind of like it should be a sad song, it’s got those soothing, low tempo vibes and a mournful lilt but it’s actually about that taunting, temptation-laden idea that things will get better. Just not taking that too obnoxiously and coming from a nadir, a gentle coaxing out of whatever hole you’ve backed into, the animal rescue encouraging you not to bite a hand off rather than anything as dangerous as ambition.
21. Dagny — Somebody
Carly Rae Jepsen pop about getting to feel emotions you’d given up on, like being horny with some sense of purpose instead of just restlessly sitting on your bed, hand halfway into your pyjama trousers.
It’s fun and it’s cute. A particularly shameless sort of pop that doesn’t try to be cool about it.
20. TENDER — Come Down When You’re Ready
Absolutely love it when I find a new band to obsess over, like discovering TENDER’s specific brand of pop-that’s-the-fucked-up-sigh-you-exhale-while-staring-into-whatever-you-doomscroll-on-a-self-hating-Wednesday.
Every day is like Wednesday now and I have spent way too much of this year fucking loathing myself. I know other people have, too. It turns out I never got past my crushing, teenage self-hate I just got distracted and validated by other means which, when you’re cut off from them, expose the wet, crumpled tissue that was masquerading as structural self esteem.
This is a sad, solemn song about being fucked up and depressed and having no reason to get out of bed. But it’s nice and soothing, for that. The friends group where you confess to having lain in an empty bath for four hours trying not to kill yourself and you’re not sure why you bothered and everyone just says “oh mood.”
19. Bhaskar, Alok — Killed By The City (Mojjo remix)
This would probably be higher and have got a lot more play in a year where I did more travelling. It’s a song for earphones and late night tube trains and the joy of landing somewhere you’ve got places to go.
Some songs aren’t intended to be played out loud so much as be the icy soundtrack to your inner monologue, this is one of them. It did get quite a lot of airtime in the early bits of travelling I did this year, woven from that cocoon of kinesis you can have from knowing you’re getting somewhere by sitting still.
Much of the rest of the year has, it must be said, not connected so strongly.
18. Miley Cyrus — Midnight Sky
Of the two former young popstar 80s pastiche things that could be on this list, should it not be Dua Lipa? Probably but I somehow feel like that’s had enough written about it, whereas Midnight Sky feels like the kind of song that’s really good but in an almost non-notable way where it doesn’t quite get the attention.
Midnight Sky is a total rip off of Stevie Nicks, without any question. It’s not subtle about it and it doesn’t pretend to be any other way but actually I like that. Same as the way Bruno Mars does pastiche more like precision cosplay reproduction, this is more of a study of the artistry that went into Stevie Nicks’ songs.
Gaga’s songs have always pinched shamelessly from Madonna because Madonna is an artist who’s made records worth stealing from and it doesn’t make the referential endproduct any lesser. There’s loads of acts that credibly reproduce the Beatles or Sting or whatever and people talk about the interesting ways they’ve adapted a beloved sound for the 21st century and to me this is an aesthetically preferable extension of that.
Midnight Sky is fun to sing, it’s a holler-along of a track and I guess especially in 2020 I don’t mind creating new karaoke bangers that hit the old spots. Rather than sounding like an echo of another song, watered down, Midnight Sky is like the thing most of us have spent the whole year doing where you like something and you watch or listen to it to try and get the hit and then have to work out how many times you can get away with it before it’s like “mm, that but not that specifically.”
17. NIMMO — Come Back
I’ve taken this song in and out of this list a few times cus I kind of have to really be in the mood for NIMMO but firstly, when it hits it hits and secondly it has copious lashings of house piano all over it so it would be remiss of me to pretend I like it less than I do.
This is an anxious howl of a song, agitated and ill-sitting with itself. Which is why it’s gone in and out of hitting the perfect spot and being almost dangerously deranging for me. If you can vibe with it in the frantic, desperate moment then it’s an opium-grade hit of catharsis.
At other times, it’s like an itch under the skin and there have been too many of them this year. It probably actually does something too well to be mostly bearable. The energy, however, after a robust number of white wines and perhaps staying up much too late, is a particular sort of manic loneliness.
16. Zola Blood — Silver Soul
I don’t know if this should really be as high up as it is but it fills the gap that slots in about this region of my list every year which is basically: some itch-scratching bit between Radiohead and The Postal Service that no one said they needed or wanted but I seem to end up listening to a lot of over the course of any given year.
This is the prettiest end of that combination, mournful and mumbled, tenderly encouraging.
15. AJ Tracey, Mabel — West Ten
Full Artful Dodger vibes. This just bangs, it has all the hallmarks of a UKG set in 2020, the professionalism of a Craig David booking, the smooth running of truly knowing every trick in the genre inside out and it’s pure pleasure for it.
14. Chloe x Halle — Ungodly Hour
I probably should have spent more time with the Chloe x Halle album cus I really enjoyed it but somehow this was the track that particularly stuck.
It’s a little neither-here-nor-there, an interrogative seduction that flirts with getting bitchy, sung lightly but with a pleading tone to get the fuck up here and fuck me.
I think the thing that’s stuck with me the most out of it is the wordplay of the chorus, such an unusual, confident and gently-worded seduction, “when you decide you like yourself (holler at me) when you decide you need someone (call up on me), when you don’t have to think about it, love me at the ungodly hour.’
It’s throwaway and so sparklingly delivered but such a weary set of words. When you get over yourself, I’m down to fuck but I won’t chase to fix you in the meantime. Such an unusually healthy approach to a casual hookup rather than like, the somewhat easier to sing about drowning in lusty need. Which brings me onto…
13. BAYNK — go with u
A lot of songs try and capture that heady insanity of a new crush. This is one of the ones that succeeds.
It wheedles, it hustles, it’s completely head-over-heels; the opening longing whine that goes into crazy; staring at your body in amazement is the hot moment of deranged lust before you get to touch someone. Touching people. I didn’t think I’d miss it but I do.
And maybe that absence is what makes the delirium of this so appealing. That opening line is as addictive as new crush energy, a perfect reproduction of all that lust and yearning and more specifically, it getting realised. Not just looking through a screen, staring at some other person you’re allowed to get with in amazement in real life and losing your goddamned mind like a teenager because we’re all thrill-starved.
This sounds like goosebumps up the back of your neck, like the electric skin-prickle of flirting going well, it’s not exactly sexy but it’s that pure stage of early lust before you find out what you have to overlook about someone. The distilled sound of summer romances we didn’t get to have, longing fulfilled only vicariously in its prechorus.
12. The Sounds — Changes
Sometimes I like to listen to music — well, no, like is too strong a word for this, let me start again.
Sometimes I listen to music that reflects a turgid awfulness, the reassuring wallow of needing to feel bad because things are shit without anyone unhelpfully trying to fix the situation. Sometimes you need to just indulge in recognising that shit’s fucked without having to pep yourself up and minimise your own feelings. Sometimes you need to fucking sulk.
This is a song for sulking. It plods, in ponderous circles that don’t try and rush you out of it, it acknowledges the tedious process of things changing for what it really is — the grinding metamorphosis is never a wand-wave but the dull mental process of working stuff out. It’s the non-montage version of self-improvement or at least survival.
Sometimes changes aren’t inspired, they just happen. Stuff just goes on and you have to deal with it regardless of whether it’s wanted. It’s really annoying and boring and although those aren’t routinely romanticised feelings, they’re ones that ring extremely true.
11. GRACEY — Alone In My Room
Being alone in your room with no distractions and that being a problem is very much, y’know, the 2020 vibe. The annual mood. The big feel.
Also being miserable as hell and trying to delude yourself into something that’ll make you feel better. Or at least nothing.
10. Banoffee, Empress Of — Tennis Fan
A hopscotch taunt of a song about FOMO; you can go hang with your friends/I know I’m not invited. The wordplay is wickedly fun, distracting expertly from the patheticness of the premise of lines like invited you to the cinema/you say you don’t wanna go/but I saw it on your story, as you watched Mission Impossible and the lighthearted, cheer-leader-ish snappiness of it covers for the fact the game is you, getting played.
I’ve spent way too much of this year able to dwell on things and one of my favourite topics, surely not a unique one, is that I’m never going to be one of the cool kids. I know this, I never have been one and it’s not like I had unrealistic expectations to become that but as squads are highlighted by online interactions it’s easy to become acutely aware of your own outsider status.
The melee of the last few years stopped me noticing I’d got old and I guess it took a break up to realise my own shelflife. It’s a bit sad, getting to your mid-30s and realising the place you exist most comfortably is at work, which isn’t happening and it’s not like people like you there, either. Which all sounds completely wank but oh, it’s so easy to think about this shit when you’ve got nothing else going on and to tie it to ambitions. Like when, exactly, will I stop deluding myself as the third wheel to my own life?
Probably never. So it’s just as well this song makes it sound bitchy and snappy and fun.
9. Avenue Beat — F2020
This is a slightly twee, slightly wry song about being completely fucked off at the whole year. It’s gently, knowingly funny in a way that says if we don’t laugh we’ll give up and it acknowledges both the big and the personal laundry lists of just being bored and sad and unable to do anything about it.
I nearly didn’t put it in because it felt a bit jarring but to be honest, I both have listened to it quite a lot and trying to pretend I haven’t would be bullshit and have unquestionably vibed with it. It’s catchy, it’s maybe a little too cutesy but that lets you dissociate enough from the specifics.
It’s not beautiful or profound but searching for more than surface meaning to things so frustrating is a route directly to florid romanticisation. My only beef is that I definitely wouldn’t only lowkey fuck 2020 but shouting it from the rooftops just feels so excessive when you know it’s your most watertight take for agreement.
8. Fantastic Negrito, E-40 — Searching For Captain Save-A-Ho
I don’t know if Mike Patton released any music this year, if he did it probably wasn’t as good as this expansive essay into indulgent sounds.
It’s overdramatic, it’s generous to the artist not the listener and it’s a ridiculous, barely-structured sprawl of a track. It’s obnoxious and feels hedonistic in the way it doesn’t bother to be much more than strung-together but the warmth of the chorus, melodically, draws it back.
The lyrics are dense and nasty, the lovely rush of the chorus telling you gently that he’s sitting with a shotgun guarding my emotional door amidst tales of woe and exploitation, shitty boyfriends and incorrigible patterns. It’s not a nice song and it makes no effort to sound that way, either but there’s a satisfaction in the wryness, the storytelling tripping easily like gossip.
7. SG Lewis, Robyn, Channel Tres — Impact
I’ve got this brain thing, after a concussion that went bad, where if I think about the wrong thing I have cognitive seizures that escalate into major physical seizures. Sometimes I need to really concentrate on the not thinking about things thing. Which is hard because of how you mustn’t think about it.
This song feels like sticking my face into water that’s somehow breathable. It’s so all-surrounding, lush, so big and so designed for a dancefloor, despite the year its in that it doesn’t leave space for things. A frontal lobe press when your brain feels like its on the brink of explosion.
It’s the kind of song you hear on a night out — remember those — maybe a couple of times over a few places and you vibe with it. It’s a shazamable track that might bring back a few fond memories or at least give you a clue where you left your coat, wrapping memories easily into it.
6. The Knocks, MUNA — Bodies (Tycho remix)
The sound of decaying in your hometown, this is a slice of domestic gothic that walks down sunlit avenues to spook you with your own past. Like a sudden email from a schoolfriend you struggle to remember the face of and can’t even imagine as an adult, it springs the vertigo of you being changed and the landscape the same.
I grew up in buttfuck nowhere in terms of teenage activities and its easy to romanticise drinking Frosty Jacks and getting ineptly fingered on the war memorial now it’s not a quarterly highlight to trying to work out what the fuck to do with your time. Now getting to stand in a park with your mates is very exciting, again, as we all regress into the endless, pointless summers of youth and scratch at old anxieties about what you’re doing with your life, without the draw distance of the future stretching that into an opportunity instead of a sentence.
What are you going to be when you grow up? Not this, surely and so you can’t be, quite yet. This can’t actually be the final form. A little headiness to imagine when this wasn’t all theoretical again, though, to slip the skin of possibility, shimmering, over all this certainty you’ve been building on quicksand ground.
5. Kygo, Zara Larsson, Tyga — Like It Is
I’ve written a lot about tropical house over the years and why its gently adjusted rave, microdosing euphoria to you to stop you throwing yourself on the traintracks during your commute rather than the ambitious hysteria of 90s boom, is not only justified as therapeutic but genuinely good.
I don’t know if I really think this is tropical house. Kygo’s trademark pineapple-infused panpipes are absent, in favour of gently lapping waves of synth. It’s completely vapid but so soothing, like fingertips at your temples and at less than three minutes long, never outstays its welcome, basically demands you hit loop to let it spin you round the good bits again.
4. The Weeknd — Blinding Lights
I don’t know what percentage of the internet is made up of versions of this song but it must be vast. If you tried to archaeologically piece together the music taste of 2020 there’d be very little else that could stand up to Blinding Lights’ total dominance.
It originally came out in 2019 but there’s no getting round that this is 2020’s song. Headlong, annoyed, empty, it’s a ballad to frustration with a keepy-uppy beat that’s never going to score.
Probably one of the reasons it works so well this year is because it’s completely empty. There are some lyrics but they’re just shapes — the Weeknd’s brand of hedonistic showoff pop, coke-nosed and claiming the smell is sex not club toilet floor, is even less believable in 2020.
No one reckons you’re partying with models this year. And if you are, it’s not a sexy sort of death you’re dicing with. So the thudding detachment that might have made this a boring brag in any other situation, quickly swallowed by its own catchiness, has instead had it persist.
It’d be a shit song to dance to but that’s fine because no one’s going out dancing. It’s a completely meaningless track, as a soundtrack to life going anywhere but when you’re not it’s got just enough of the little hits to keep you interested.
The promise of excitement in the early stages never goes too far, the song judders with beats upon beats upon hooks but it never risks falling apart, safely steady all the way. There’s a study from years ago that showed in the most unstable times, pop music gets its most consistent and steady beats and the sheer unavoidable, all-consuming popularity of this certainly supports that.
Yet here I am in December watching someone cover it on a towel on YouTube. Having exhausted all known instruments, every app and all recorded animal sounds we’re moving on to the linen section and somehow, it still works. The covers that don’t are the ones that lose the precise kinesis of the beat, the melody largely irrelevant, just as your surroundings have dictated most of this year.
It’s the sound of 2020 because it sounds like 2020: available in so many mundane formats, all of them the same and just as you’re not going to write that novel while you’re trying not to climb the walls of your own home, you’re not going to stop listening to this any time soon. You know where the drops are, you know how to handle the little twiddle of excitement on the three-beat blast of I can’t see clearly when you’re go-oo-one and it feels practicedly polished by this point.
There’s nothing wrong with that. If anyone tells you finding comforting, repetitive fascination in the mediocre familiar is a flaw this year, tell them to go fuck themselves. This is a rhythm that’s sustainable, in a year that’s been totally out of sync. In 20 years time it will seem baffling but this isn’t a song that lives as a legend in the future, it’s a self-indulgent slice of now.
3. Little Mix — Happiness
Little Mix are such a great band. They have a distinctive,complicated pop sound that’s been cultivated over the years, developed expertly by songwriter Kamille.
Happiness is a misnomer, this song is about feeling shitty. It’s a feel-good singalong banger about getting better that’s really fucking hard to sing — the swooping uphill struggles and incredibly fast note progressions are ludicrously complicated, Ariana Grande-esque on a multi-part, cinematic universe scale.
This song demands and it works hard to make you work harder, not a recovery montage track so much as the aggressive friend that lovingly but rigorously gets you through it. It’s the sound of the curtains being violently opened and every mouldy mug and empty vodka bottle being removed from your gremlin cave.
It’s the sound of putting its foot down, that metamorphic grind I mentioned earlier in the sheer technical challenge of the song. And god, it sounds incredible; cinematic, emotive, the bolting-two-bottles-of-white-wine-with-a-mate-and-setting-it-all-to-rights scenario but performed with incredible precision not your drunken resolution that you’ll text them tomorrow.
2. Jim-E Stack, Empress Of — Note To Self
This switched with the track at #1 several times because it really is so good but just. Not quite. A little victim to being too perfectly aligned to this year, more than any others.
As you’ve probably guessed by this point, warmth is incredibly appealing to me in pop music; I like songs that sound like they’re people you know, which Jim-E Stack seems to specifically create. Endless fuzzy waves envelope you in this, while it does something universally appealing.
There’s a bit in one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ books — I’m pretty sure it’s So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, when he’d stopped pretending they were anything but good jokes about melancholy — where Ford Prefect meets a sex worker. She tells him she’s very good at her job and he obviously assumes she’s going to say some sort of obscene trick but she just says “I tell people it’s ok to have lots of money.”
It’s way more revulsive than anything sexual could be, as well as really obvious, wrongfooting Ford with the straightforwardness of it. Ford Prefect’s a made up alien who finds life hard to deal with, channeling the author’s own issues into the more pragmatically explicable struggles of life on the intergalactic superhighway.
Here’s what makes pop music really good, though: it tells you it’s alright to have feelings. Lots of feelings, shitty feelings even. It’s what makes us go batshit, over decades and to carry on chasing the form of three minutes of something that reflects yourself back at you.
This song’s entire premise is: it’s ok to have feelings. Here’s a warm, thrumming cocoon to have them in. Here’s little spikes of melody like synthetic serotonin. Here’s the repeat button, in case you accidentally find yourself having feelings again. The system cooling fan whirr to the human condition.
1. Bree Runway, Yung Baby Tate — DAMN DANIEL
Some of — maybe most of — the songs on this list wouldn’t have made it in a normal year, when there’d be so much more to be interested in than what you can bear to decorate the inside of your head with.
This song would have been. It probably would have still been at the top. It’s funny, it’s warm, it’s ridiculously catchy, it’s snappy and makes me feel like it’d take the piss out of me and I’d still be a bit in awe of how cool it is.
It takes 90s pastiche to an unashamed conclusion, makes it look so much better than it ever was, like an updated and better-fitting version of your favourite crappy, off-brand Adidas. It’s brash and whimsical and it can carry off a bumbag.
And it’s got that middle eight that hits the sweet spot so hard. The last bit of this song is so straight-up pleasurable to listen to it almost feels like it shouldn’t go that far, like how dare anyone carry that off? But it does, so well.
At the end of all this, a technicolour smut delivery of if you fuck with him, he’ll fuck all your friends with all the gleeful spite of a cheerleading taunt is perfect. Yes, this year has very much screwed everyone around but you’re not dumb bitches for that and here’s to the whole thing looking stupid on the ‘gram in a few months.