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What is it that got you through 2020? Netflix? Your daily, state-sactioned stroll in the park? Budget wine? Getting so into baking that you dried out the local Tesco's flour supply?
Or maybe it was one of these 20 songs...they certainly helped us out.
20. Black Honey - 'I Like The Way You Die'
2020 saw the return of Black Honey with some fresh, gritty material ahead of their second album in January. ‘I Like the Way You Die’ is a prominent release boasting loud and distorted percussion, more distorted guitars and even more distorted vocals. Black Honey have always been open about their cinematic influences and their love for Quentin Tarantino, but the release of ‘ILTWYD’ took this to a new level as it references the 2012 hit Django Unchained and blends this influence with a heavier rock and slightly Halloween’ish sound whilst maintaining their signature indie hooks.
‘ILTWYD’ is a clear sign of what’s to come from the band looking forward. If their latest releases - which also include ‘Run For Cover’ and ‘Beaches’ - are anything to go by, Black Honey will be taking 2021 by storm with a compelling new sound and a vision for world domination. (Ross Carley)
19. M.T. Hadley - 'Suddenly'
On his end-of-year surprise EP There Isn't A Window That I Won't Look Out Of, M.T. Hadley reaffirmed just why he's one of our favourite new singer-songwriters around. 'Suddenly' is a moving, piano-led rock ballad backed by a string section that strikes emotion to the heart - even more than Hadley's vocals and lyrics already do, that is.
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A follow-up to last year's near-perfect debut album Empty, it - and the EP it came attached to - made it abundantly clear that Mr. Hadley continues to be one to watch for the future of nuanced, oft-acerbic rock songs that sound like they've always been around forever. (Jessie Atkinson)
18. Harry Styles - 'Watermelon Sugar'
Whether the song appeared on an algorithmic playlist made for you or through one of the 1.3+ million videos on TikTok that used the track, none of us could get away from 'Watermelon Sugar,' Harry Styles’ slice of pop perfection. Inspired by his love of fruit analogies and dedicated "to touching", ‘Watermelon Sugar’ was the desperately-needed steamy soundtrack to an isolated 2020 summer. Pairing lyrics of love and longing against isolated vocals, groovy guitar hooks, and a sultry sweet melody, ‘Watermelon Sugar’ highlights the sheer power of Styles and his ability to pull from his 70s influences.
After finally getting Styles his first #1 hit, ‘Watermelon Sugar’ will be remembered as both a euphoric escape and a confusing conundrum for those not familiar with the singer and his cheeky antics when, on their 175th listen of the track, they suddenly had to Google: is this song about oral sex? (Kelsey Barnes)
17. KennyHoopla - 'how will i rest in peace if im buried by a highway?//'
It was a tough choice between this banger and recent Travis Barker collaboration 'Estella//', but seeing as the latter could do with a ten-minute driving remix to leave us truly satisfied, it's KennyHoopla's breakthrough track 'how will i rest in peace if im buried by a highway?//' that makes the cut as one of the most addictive and accomplished anthems of the year.
Kenny plays with myriad genres - trap, pop, indie - but on this alt smash-hit, he's an intoxicating mix of new wave, emo and pop-punk. Over racing drums and satisfying guitar plucks, the young Wisconsin artist belts out his wounded lyrics: he's insistent on his apathy throughout, but you can hear in his delivery that KennyHoopla doesn't really mean it - this is a true poet with a big heart and a huge future. (Jessie Atkinson)
16. The 1975 - 'The Birthday Party'
In a year where many of us found ourselves yearning to attend any kind of social function, The 1975 offered a reminder that mingling with others sometimes isn’t quite as exciting as we might recall. Underpinned by a hazy blend of banjos, guitars and synths, singer Matt Healy imagines a series of mundane conversations at a gathering, interspersed with his usual brand of observations around getting fucked up at the expense of personal relationships.
Healy’s lyrics regularly deal with the banal, often with his tongue firmly in-cheek. Taken on its own, The Birthday Party is a toe-tapping commentary on the bland nature of being in the company of others when wasted. Viewed in the context of 2020, however, it plays like of a wistful reflection on those perfunctory, yet now seemingly impossible moments – a melancholic ode to the mundane that stands as one of the year’s finest pop offerings. (Paul Weedon)
15. Christine & The Queens - 'La vita nuova'
The title track of Christine & the Queens much-praised La vita nuova EP, Christine’s voice rises in Italian over an ethereal synth texture before *the most* punchy, electrifying, utterly danceable beat and bass section sets the track alight. Christine’s expert grasp of melody and harmony carries ‘La vita nuova’ with whimsicality and confidence at once. Guest vocalist Caroline Polchek takes on the second verse with her more velvety voice before joining irresistibly with Christine’s for the chorus. The song takes a dark turn for its final moments, descending into a sensual soundscape of leftfield electronica.
‘La vita nuova’ is, like the most exciting music, many things at once - spacious and perfectly full, minimal but luscious, expansive and yet intimate. It is an expert piece of magic, as all the most renowned incarnations of ‘pop’ are and should be. (Lucy Sheehan)
14. Lucia & The Best Boys - 'Perfectly Untrue'
Ever since their huge revamp at the tail-end of 2019 as Lucia & The Best Boys, this Glasgow group have absolutely dominated the underground scene in the UK. Starting the year with the Eternity EP, the trio ended 2020 with the emotional The State Of Things, one part of which was the enormous pop anthem 'Perfectly Untrue'.
Guitar gold and newly synth-tastic, the real magic in this song - and all of Lucia's songs: the tender, emotive 'Let Go' could have taken this spot too - comes through in those melodic hooks. In this track, Lucia comes to terms with a heartbreak, the pain of which you can hear written all over her special vocal performance. (Jessie Atkinson)
13. The Cribs - 'Running Into You'
Perhaps the best thing to come out of the hell that is 2020 was the return of Wakefield’s finest, The Cribs. ‘Running Into You’ is the lead single from the group’s latest LP Night Network. Recorded at Dave Grohl’s 606 studios, it’s an outing packed full of guitar crunch, exquisite Northern tones and a new found confidence for the group. The track already feels like a classic Cribs outing and serves to highlight a youthful energy that hasn’t been seen in the band since the days of Ignore The Ignorant. The Jarmans are back, and showing everyone why they’re one of the most loved indie outfits in the country. (Tom Dibb)
12. Little Simz - 'might bang, might not'
Islington’s Little Simz dishes up a considerable amount of fun on the gusto-laden single ‘might bang, might not’. Splicing jazz-funk with straight edge hip hop and a sensible sprinkling of indie rock circa '06, Little Simz delivers a bold monologue accompanied by a muddy bass riff and uncomplicated yet totally apt chorus.
The annunciation allows no phrase to be lost in the mix, and the message of sheer confidence ‘Feeling myself, yeah / I might be, bitch’ is cleanly and swiftly realised. The pressures of fame are reflected on ‘I'm paid now / I got shit to lose’ however the bravado soon takes back hold ‘fuck that / I crashed the party / fuck that / I am the party’ Little Simz has already kicked things into gear and ‘might bang, might not’ is an fine addition to her repertoire. (Harrison Smith)
11. Bicep - 'Apricots'
Bicep’s ‘Apricots’, the mesmerisingly melancholic dance anthem released to accompany the announcement of the Belfast-born duo’s much-anticipated sophomore album Isles, truly stands as a pillar in the soundtrack of the year in its own right. With its pulsating base, syncopated beats, hypnotic synths and vocal sample of traditional Malawian singers euphorically echoing throughout, the track has its listeners captivated from the first note.
In a year when dancing has had to relocate from big dancefloors packed with strangers to kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms shared with only a few people you probably know inside out, ‘Apricots’ not only captures, but almost materialises, the ups and downs of a rollercoaster year with its perfectly balanced ambivalence. Even though it sounds great through headphones dancing down the street on your way to the food shop, we can’t wait to hear ‘Apricots’ blasting out at full volume in a club or at a festival. (Sofie Lindevall)
10. IDLES - 'Model Village'
When IDLES released the roaring and relentlessly damning ‘Model Village’, it was surprising to see that it was met with some resistance from fans. The band have long fostered an ethos of love and unity, and some listeners felt like this song was too lyrically divisive, pushing back against the bigots instead of trying to educate them through their heavy, but always somewhat gentle songs. However, anyone who has come from a village can see the truth in this song, the real feeling of being trapped in a fishbowl of prejudice. Sure, it might not have been the message fans were looking for, but they certainly captured those feelings of rage, restlessness and desperation that we’ve all felt at one point or another. (Vicky Greer)
9. Porridge Radio - 'Sweet'
A contrast of calm and chaos, ‘Sweet’ acts as the centrepiece to ‘Every Bad’ - a record rich with visceral explorations of self-doubt and self-identity. Beginning “my mum says that I look like a nervous wreck/because I bite my nails right down to the flesh”, band leader Dana Margolin hints at a mind on the brink of collapse, later delivering the repeated line “you will like me when you meet me” with ferocious intensity – as if screaming into the void hoping someone will hear.
The nervous energy evoked by the lyrics is complemented by crashing guitars taken straight out of the grunge playbook. The brief reprieves are quickly met with explosions of energy – a feeling encapsulated wonderfully in the band’s performance at Brighton’s Rialto Theatre for this year’s Mercury Prize. All in all, a special track from an absolutely vital band. (Daniel Jeakins)
8. Dua Lipa - 'Don't Start Now'
It’s the single that started the era of Disco Lipa: ‘Don’t Start Now’, the cooler, vintage-outfitted cousin of ‘New Rules’, is the epitome of Future Nostalgia. The mixing and vocal sampling might be modern, but everything else about it reminds us of a simpler time where Studio 54 reigned supreme.
The track, for the most part, is surprisingly minimalist: a booming bass and grooving drumline accompanies Dua’s commanding vocals. The genius lies in how the song contrasts these sparse sections with typical tropes of synth bursts, stringed interjections and, of course, the iconic cowbell. By the time you get to the end of the song, you’ll be revelling in the maximalist ecstasy of ‘Don’t Start Now’.
Trigonometrical confusions aside, Dua Lipa did a full 180 from boring pop to exciting nu-disco. ‘Don’t Start Now’ is so refreshing that it’ll convince you that musical throwbacks should be, ironically enough, en vogue. (Alex Rigotti)
7. Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion - 'WAP'
Thank the Lord, for Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion blessed us with the most iconic collaboration of 2020: ‘WAP’. A song might have all the chart accreditations in the world, but nothing comes close to making Ben Shapiro singlehandedly make a fool of himself.
Equal parts silly and sexy, Cardi’s delivery is clean and simple; Megan’s flow is rapid-fire, yet so smooth that she hits you with hilarity before you can even begin to process the first thing she said. Who else, after all, can write about touching the "lil dangly thing that swing in the back of my throat"? Or how "you can’t hurt my feelings, but I like pain"? ‘WAP’ sparked national debates about lubrication, endless TikTok dances and hilarious remixes, but what makes it so good really lies outside of its impact. Ultimately, ‘WAP’ is a masterclass in rap: rhythmically challenging, playful and most importantly, entertaining. (Alex Rigotti)
6. Doves - 'Carousels'
The first track in eleven years for Doves, 'Carousels' absolutely obliterated any guitar-related competition in those first few bars: extraordinary drumming courtesy of the late Tony Allen, swirling guitars and synths giving the impression of levitating through a funhouse.
Swirling, panoramic and no-holds-barred, this enormous song tracks like a nostalgia trip down the memory lane of the 1990s, while also sounding like a new beginning for the trio. Rhythm guitar slides up and down like a waltzer while lead picks at the top notes like a string of flashing lights. You're flying high. Way, way above the clouds. Extraordinary stuff. (Jessie Atkinson)
5. Rina Sawayama - 'XS'
‘XS’ is one of the most unlikely combinations of pop and rock, but it introduces us to Rina Sawayama’s intelligent use of genre by harkening back to the music that she grew up with. The song begins some mottled wail against foreboding strings, transitioning into some sickly sunny 90s pop. But then BAM! Those nu-metal riffs hit you before the chorus, hinting at something much more sinister underneath. Rina’s cry for "more!" spirals in rhythm with the guitars by the end.
Somehow, Rina found the energy to serve us even more brilliance in the song’s lyrical premise. She presents a familiar narrative of narcissistic indulgence ("I’m the baddest and I’m worth it") that becomes increasingly meaningless ("Flex, when all that’s left is immaterial"), leaving the narrator degraded ("Make me less so I want more"). It’s Rina at her best: showing us why she’s one of the most fascinating voices in pop. (Alex Rigotti)
4. Arlo Parks - 'Hurt'
Amidst all the chaos of 2020, we were graced with the comfort and charm of young Arlo Parks - a powerful force who has conquered our hearts as well as our playlists. Producing thoughtful and poetic tracks that display wisdom far beyond her years, ‘Hurt’ is but one example of the slick and stylish creations she has produced this year. An anthem for the troubled, the track brings an uplifting boost at a time it’s safe to say we as a society have felt hurt and desperation in a big way.
Ultimately the track is a glorious reminder of the temporary nature of suffering – so sit back and let ‘Hurt’ melt away all your worries. Better times are coming, and with an Arlo album due in the near future, those times may not be so far away. (Melissa Darragh)
3. Christine & The Queens - 'People, I've Been Sad'
Grief: it's a dark feeling of loss that can seem inescapable and isolating when you’re in the thick of it. Yet somehow, Christine tackled those emotions whilst processing the loss of her mother last year, turning them into a synth-pop power ballad that is as exquisitely beautiful as it is piercingly haunting. Her lyrics feel like a confession “it’s true that people I’ve been sad”, the revelations harmonised in response from her own distorted echo, a production masterstroke that makes those intimate moments feel stadium wide.
As the song progresses it starts to reach into your soul, sweeping away all the pain and sadness with its thunderous momentum. Finally, when the bridge arrives in her native French, it doesn’t matter if you understand her words because Christine’s pure emotion makes you feel all of it. ‘People I’ve Been Sad’ transcends borders: music is a universal language and it doesn’t get better than this. (Philip Giouras)
2. Fontaines D.C. - 'A Hero's Death'
‘A Hero’s Death’ - the quarantine song that was written well before lockdown. Fontaines D.C. managed to tap into the complex emotions we were all feeling earlier this year. The chorus and mantra “life ain’t always empty” became a core belief among Fontaines D.C. fans, repeated so often throughout the track that we actually started to believe it.
With all new vocal harmonies that the band picked up on their hectic touring schedule, it marks a new beginning after the critically acclaimed Dogrel in 2019 - a new sound that has even gotten them a well-deserved Grammy nomination. ‘A Hero’s Death’ is a poetic guide to how you should live your life, and it might be exactly what you need to hear right now. (Vicky Greer)
1. Phoebe Bridgers - 'Kyoto'
Phoebe Bridgers is truly an artist within a league of her own. Her sophomore album Punisher was precipitated by ‘Kyoto’, a song which sums up the album's title all too well. Bridgers oxymoronically crafts an aural environment with warm guitars giving way to grandiose horns, whilst the triumphant music is also juxtaposed with the slice-of-life and self-doubting lyricism at play.
Bridgers points out that the titular city of Kyoto remarkably has “still got payphones”, and she is “bored at the temple”. But the mask drops as the chorus approaches, when she confesses at the top of her lungs that “I wanted to see the world/Through your eyes until it happened/Then I changed my mind”. This ode by Bridgers captures that haunting feeling of imposter syndrome, yet the twist is that she owns this, and crafts an upbeat, accessible single out of these emotions. It’s a tour-de-force of songwriting that is up there with the very best. (Cameron Sinclair Harris)
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