Despite everything else that’s happened in 2020, there sure has been a lot of good music. It just keeps coming, and we’ve all found the songs that have helped us soundtrack all the events and trials that this year has unleashed. Whether discovered via playlists, mixtapes, albums or even the radio (remember that?), sometimes you hear a song just gets its claws into you – or perhaps it finally sneaks up on you after half a dozen listens – but once it’s there, it’s indelibly linked with that moment in time.
Obviously, each individual has their own songs they’ll associate with 2020, so narrowing it down to a Top 50 is pretty much impossible. We’re not even sure we could tell you how we came up with this list – but we’ve done it, and we’re proud to present it below. From blockbuster singles, to album deep cuts, to teasers for what’s to come in the new year, we’ve selected a whole host of tracks we hope you’ll agree were among the most resonant released this year.
Car Seat Headrest – “There Must Be More Than Blood”
No one probably could have predicted the direction Will Toledo would take his beloved bedroom-turned-major-indie-label project Car Seat Headrest. After reimagining the near immaculate Twin Fantasy for a new age of fan, Toledo retired to the studio to take things in a different direction. The result, the ultimately polarizing Making a Door Less Open, was pinpointed by standardized rock and electronic traits, with only a few classic Car Seat callbacks. Of those callbacks, the seven-plus-minute track “There Must Be More Than Blood” comes the closest to what diehard fans have expected.
After a decade writing from the heart with gut-wrenching purpose, Toledo’s pivot on Making a Door Less Open gives way to a thoughtful but exhausting retrospective. He’s travelled the world, played to crowds small and large, and he must ponder if there’s more to it than this. This is the point on Door that resounds with most listeners, as it shares several themes that were begun on early fan favorites like “Something Soon” and continues to hold Toledo under this contemplative light.
Regardless of the consensus on the album, “There Must Be More Than Blood” sums up Toledo’s feelings on stardom. This is a guy who had eight albums under his belt by the time Matador signed him, and his priorities have changed drastically since then, as they should with anyone. Elsewhere on the record he toys with multiple styles – some that pay off and some that don’t – but with “Blood” he pinpoints the purpose behind this semi-reinvention, and it’s all about looking for that purpose behind what you’re doing and how you’re living. Whether he comes to the conclusion he was looking for is immaterial – it’s the fact that he’s cognizant enough to ask the question that matters. – Tim Sentz
Frances Quinlan – “Your Reply”
Characteristically, “Your Reply” finds Frances Quinlan deep in a novel, examining the marginalia and following her inquisitiveness down a wormhole into discovering that the author died by falling out of a window while “stretching out to feed pigeons / or a stray cat, depending on the website.” She doesn’t actually mention the name of the book or author in the song, but there are enough details that sleuths have pinpointed the exact passage she’s reading: it comes from Closely Watched Trains by 20th century Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. This is exactly the kind of close reading that Quinlan’s bookish lyricism invites listeners to invest themselves in, and more than in the often boisterous work with her main band Hop Along, her words are given more space to breathe and live in her solo work.
That doesn’t necessarily make following her train of thought any easier though. Moving us on from her exploration of Hrabal, she places us in the middle of a dinner date, where Quinlan finds herself rambling about a 1950s documentary in which lemmings throw themselves to their death. Catching herself, she smoothly adds “dinner, by the way, was divine,” in a surprisingly romantic and melodious voice. And how about the titular “Your Reply”? Well, this whole time she’s waiting for her dinner partner to unveil themselves, to let Quinlan see a part of them that she hasn’t. Maybe it isn’t even there at all and Quinlan is clinging to an imaginary truth? It’s uncertain, but these rambling, meta-textual thoughts are the lifeblood of her songwriting, and “Your Reply” is perhaps the finest example yet. – Rob Hakimian
Jeff Rosenstock – “Ohio Tpke”
End credits vibes throughout this one, which is set to make playlists way after 2020 has become a distant and traumatic memory. The closing track, which emerges as a definite highlight of Jeff Rosenstock‘s fourth solo album NO DREAM (even though the LP is perhaps best consumed in its entirety at once in order to ensure appropriate digestion of sonic and lyric content), “Ohio Tpke” is a track that simultaneously throws us back and pushes us forward, proving an adequate metaphor to whatever the hell is currently going on. Like the rest of the album, and the generality of Rosenstock’s career, the track is urgent and necessary; nothing in NO DREAM feels like a dispensable adornment, as things mean what they say and say what they mean. But the closer brings this to an appropriate peak, loud and proud like an unashamed cry for help or the most ecstatic climax. Music is supposed to make you feel feelings anyway, and some even say the more mixed the better. Weird times indeed. I’m just glad Jeff Rosenstock is here to help us make sense of it all. – Ana Leorne
Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”
Bill Callahan has a great sense of humour, and just in case you didn’t know, you’ll find it in the first line to “Pigeons”. “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” he greets the listener as the journey begins. There’s a wistful smirk in his voice as he takes on the persona of a wedding limo driver carrying two newlyweds away from a chapel. As he drives he sings peacefully of those in the back, locations he’s passing, and advice he’s asked for.
Callahan plays a gently bobbing guitar and various instruments (light brass, wispy woodwind, some more guitars) come and go, like landmarks or scenery his limo is passing by. His pacing is so refined and wonderful that when he takes a pause for thought in the lyrics, the music follows suit and it feels like the car is just slowing at the traffic lights. I’m of the opinion that pretty much any Callahan track is worth a spin, but “Pigeons” definitely so. It’s Callahan at his best: wry, homely, and quietly brilliant. Plus, you know, who wouldn’t want to spend five minutes riding with Johnny Cash. – Ray Finlayson
Jerskin Fendrix – “Oh God”
Should Jerskin Fendrix’s schtick work this well? Hell if I know, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t. You never know quite when the man is baring his soul or when he’s cruelly toying with us, joking all along. “Oh God” no doubt features a bit of both. You can’t help but hear “If only the girls in here could hear me play piano,” without a heavy helping of self-deprecating mockery, after all. Yet, more than anything, it plays like a panic attack that’s been a long time coming. He’s picking at his lips, he’s taking a break from productivity, he’s stealing lines, but above all, he’s just about to lose the one he loves. We don’t get the full story, but we know he’s yet another white guy with an Asian girlfriend abroad. He wants to screw around, she wants to screw around, but when she actually calls him up (“at 9am her time”) to call it off? Sheer terror, and one of the, I’ll say it, hardest indie kid musical break downs of the year sets in. You’re gonna lose that girl, and damn if it’s not going to hurt. – Chase McMullen
The Lemon Twigs – “The One”
An initial naïve expectation that we’d be out of the woods by summer made The Lemon Twigs postpone the release of Songs For The General Public to late August, but it soon became obvious we wouldn’t be able to enjoy it live anytime soon. Which is an utter shame, since the D’Addario brothers’ impressive coming of age music-wise would be fantastic to witness on stage.
Despite never straying away from the nostalgia-ridden landscapes they’ve been presenting us with since “These Words” avalanched into our ears in 2016, the big secret of “The One”‘s appeal is them having achieved the perfect balance of heartwarming and heartbreaking in a single tune—that addictive happy-sad feeling one inevitably gets with most throwback moments. The Lemon Twigs’ ever-evolving 70s FM rock formula as made evident by the deliciously multicoloured pastiche that is “The One” may lead some to suspect parody; but deep down we all know the best way to pay homage is through a flawless caricature. And, to quote Carly Simon, nobody does it better. – Ana Leorne
Phoebe Bridgers – “I Know The End”
A projector clicks on and the end credits begin. Phoebe Bridgers starts painting the picture, and her attention to detail makes it all seem real (“Out in the park, we watch the sunset / Talking on a rusty swing set”). Coupling the end of her relationship with an imagined end of the world scenario might seem a touch heavy-handed, but this is Punisher‘s final play: a moment of explosion, cathartic screaming and all. Before she gets there though, Bridgers’ cool, hushed voice is reassuring throughout; “I know, I know, I know,” she repeats. It’s the simplest of phrases, but it couldn’t be more parental, more caring, more human if you tried.
As the sound builds, she seems to wrap up details and references from the rest of the album into imagined scenarios to face the apocalypse (buying a new house, UFOs in the sky), all before announcing “the end is here.” It’s literal, of course, but it seems like such a relief. Horns rise, drums charge, and by now the song has the heft of a Hollywood movie score to make you feel like something truly monumental is in front of you. When everything sours into a minor key, it feels like Bridgers has entered the eye of the storm – but she is surrounded by her musician friends, who gravitate her (and the song) beyond the stratosphere. In the face of the end of the world, aim for the stars. Bridgers did that, and the result is enough to take you there with her. – Ray Finlayson
TWICE – “Behind The Mask”
You know the world is in a state when even the most gleeful pop groups take a step back and find inspiration in the pandemic. Written in collaboration with none other than esteemed Korean songwriter Heize, and even composed in part by Dua Lipa, one can truly say TWICE‘s “Behind the Mask” is a pop smash of global proportions.
It’s cleverness lies within the fact that the song would make sense in any year: that mask we all wear in our daily lives, masking our feelings. Naturally, it takes on a fair more literal meaning in 2020, and the song becomes the bop for all of us wishing we could simply see the people around us. How are we going to find someone, when the best we can do are shy glances at a hidden visage? TWICE have the medicine for that. – Chase McMullen
Alexis Marshall – “Nature in Three Movements”
Broodingly manic and bursting with bile from the cracks of traumatic wounds, “Nature in Three Movements” was all that Alexis Marshall needed to remind everyone that no one can project a tormented psyche quite like the Daughters frontman. Released after months of intense treatment for mental illness, “Nature in Three Movements” sees Marshall re-emerge from the other end of his toiling bout sounding – ironically – more anguished than before.
As Marshall’s voice convulses, singing, “Couldn’t put the hammer down / He wore one right between his eyes / Couldn’t be left alone…” you wouldn’t be blamed for wanting to extend a helping hand to Marshall as he pleas for help in a manner that is – at the very least – unsettling. As his bludgeoning words pummel their way into our hearts without a single ounce of anaesthetic, this battering ram of a single is reinforced by percussive distortion that is threatening, but not unlike what we heard on Daughters’ last album. And yet, at the same time, “Nature in Three Movements” resembles nothing from Marshall’s band, as the rabid song feels uncomfortably personal to his mental headspace. If, for some odd reason, you want to be made privy to what a mental breakdown feels like, “Nature in Three Movements” will take you there, but then deep into a terrifying hell you could never have imagined. – Kyle Kohner
Serial Killers – “Normal”
[Open Bar Entertainment]
In a year when our concept of ‘normal’ has been re-adjusted several times over, few acts have summed up the confusion and sheer stupidity of humanity as well as Xzibit, B-Real, and Demrick did on their Serial Killers Present: Summer of Sam album. Chief among these is the song “Normal” itself, where their introduction is heralded by a series of newscaster clips about COVID cases topping a million in the US, the impact the quarantine is having on local businesses, and plans to delay the re-opening of states. It’s a startling introduction that sets up the ominous tone of “Normal”, in which the three rappers thrive.
However, they don’t take the obvious option of rapping about what the responsible citizen needs to do to help the country and economy recover, but instead take on caricatures of people who think they’re above it all. Xzibit begins unwaveringly, detailing his unwillingness to stay indoors and feeling like he’s been doing time; “They ain’t gon’ stop me from livin’ / I’ma do what I want / I’ma compromise my respiratory system with blunts.” Demrick hops in next, picking up the baton of arrogance by announcing he’s heading outdoors, sharing beers and blunts with his homies, cursing Wuhan, and getting head in the strip club, announcing “I’m healthy and fit / I ain’t gon’ never get sick.” B-Real is last up, complaining about shows being cancelled and going stir crazy in his home, before he too inevitably heads outside.
The kicker? At the end of each of their verses, they all end up getting COVID – coughs, positive tests, the whole shebang. And just in case you want to laugh it off by saying this is all make believe silliness, they wrap up “Normal” with a clip of a real mob of people complaining about their freedoms being violated. Yep, people really are that selfish and ignorant. Sometimes the truest way to show it is to hold a mirror up to it, which is what Serial Killers have expertly done on “Normal”. – Rob Hakimian