20 Essential Singles from 2020

2020 was a year where, while outside the window the world seemed to spin further and further out of control, in our personal lives absolutely nothing happened. Locked down and bored beyond fucking comprehension, ordering in at slightest of provocation, contributing to Jeff Bezos’ personal fortune. Life seemed on pause. It still does.

The past twelve months have gone by in a flash, and the music of 2020 has been similarly under-nourished. And yet, like honeysuckle in a snowdrift, some tracks were still able to stand out, either as radio earworms or cultural blockbusters…or just something we really liked. Here are twenty tracks from 2020 that we couldn’t leave alone. We’ve collected them all in a playlist below for ease of listening.

SAINt JHN, Imanbek – Roses – Imanbek Remix

With grammar like that you’d assume a clerical error, but otherwise ‘Roses’ was the club song of the year. With the distinction of being released in a year where there weren’t any clubs open. A remix that transforms the original so dramatically that if it were my song I’d possibly be offended. SAINt JHN has his vocals chipmunked beyond recognition and his instrumental dismantled – but when the result is a global smash (and a big improvement) perhaps that isn’t such a big deal.

Róisín Murphy – Something More

Beloved pop maverick vowed to “snatch the wigs” of Dua Lipa & Jessie Ware – consider them snatched. Mining a similar vein of late 80s / early 90s nostalgia, Murphy turns pithy siren on ‘Something More’. A tongue-in-cheek hail mary to excessive want and desire, with pillowy synth pad and throbbing bass to match Murphy’s coquettish vocals. Slow burner, but brilliant too.

Citizen Kay, Genesis Owusu – Funny Business

Cyberfunk from Aus, propelled by tightly strung bass groove and a clattering beat. Punchy verses with smooth vocals on the hook, a super slick chorus and twinkling accent keys that give ‘Funny Business’ a cocksure swagger. 3AM synthfunk that’ll live in your head rent-free for months.

Thundercat – Dragonball Durag

Assured sex jam featuring choice lyric “Baby girl, I’ma smash in my durag / ‘Cause it’s only right.” Cosmic jazz and spiralling basslines over boxy, android quality beats. Ridiculous, beautiful. Thundercat is a one-off.

Read our review of Thundercat’s It Is What It Is here.

Regard, RAYE – Secrets

RAYE continues to be the best addition to any going house track, and this collab was the bubbling under hit of the summer. A banger about infidelity with a seriously old school, early 00s twinkle in it’s eye. The synth bass groove is pure euro-camp.

Young T & Bugsey – Don’t Rush ft. DaBaby

Won’t pretend DaBaby adds much; he spent last year making songs and this year making money, with a string of unnecessary one verse remixes for Dua Lipa, Future and also this. Certainly doesn’t detract from such a solid grime framework. Featherweight beat, high melodic bass and a slick and slippery flow. Won’t pretend I’m not completely ignorant of what the verb blammed denotes, being older than 25, but that’s okay. I can guess.

Chromatics – TOY

Chromatics turned in pure heartbreak on ‘TOY’. Long flirting with 80s aesthetics, they finally went full new-wave with this agonising synthpop gem. Anyone who’s gone through a messy breakup – the kind where by the end you’re just begging for it to be over – will relate. Or, on a lighter note, you can just appreciate the stiffly programmed beat and soaring synth melody.

Sam Fender – Winter Song

Debated whether to include this, not because it isn’t brilliant (it is), but because it’s so singular and fierce and devastating it didn’t fit with a collection of mostly radio-ready pop. A moment of sheer brilliance from North Shields’ prodigal son, the kind of cover that changes the original forever. Chilly, ghostly, devastating.

Read our full review of ‘Winter Song’ here.

Celeste – Stop This Flame

With little more than a retro piano pulse and boxy shuffle beat, Celeste announced herself to the wider listening public with a de facto anthem. An insistent two note piano vamp and vaguely jazzy stylings ensure this is more of a Radio 2 listen, but the Amy Winehouse & Florence Welsh comparisons aren’t far off the mark. A classy, briskly moving neo-soul song. If it’s soundtracking Sky Sports VTs then well, you made it.

Taylor Swift – august

Something’s wrong in the universe where a year goes by without slagging off Swizz, let alone listing her as a highlight. folklore was a refreshing change of pace for her, and the one genuine career move she’s made in some time. ‘august’ is beautifully bittersweet and genuine, effortless. Chorus perfectly encapsulates the feeling of late summer and watching the last days of August’s sun fade into September and the encroaching autumn. Beautiful song.

Read our review of folklore here.

Keep Dancing Inc – Start Up Nation

Either an indictment or celebration of entrepreneurship (probably says more about you), the French trio bring an immaculately groomed 3 minutes of synthpop. Bouncy keys, indelible grooves and a quirky chorus. Tongue-in-cheeck, dandyish indie disco from Paris.

Tycho – Outer Sunset

Much needed four minutes of chill in an awful year. The accompanying visualiser of pink-hued waves rolling gently to the horizon could not be more instructive: this is music to float away to. Rolling surf informs the gentle picking progression, with a more robust breakbeat propping it up. Slick Californian jam music to just float away with.

Read our full review of ‘Outer Sunset’ here.

Lady Gaga – Rain On Me (with Ariana Grande)

Sheer misery-repellent, Gaga’s long awaited return to the dancefloor is spectacular. A loving tribute to trashy euro-house circa 2002, Gaga brings typical panache to the rattling hi-hats and tacky synths of the era. Ari’s vocals bring the class while the instrumentation is comfortingly tacky: hallmarks of a bygone era that 90s kids will remember fondly. “At least I’m alive” – yeah, basically. At least we still have that. Comeback of the year.

Miley Cyrus – Midnight Sky

Miley’s Pat Benatar impersonation proved one of the best tracks of the year. It took a while for the music consuming public to catch on, with ‘Midnight Sky’ languishing mid-chart on both sides of the Atlantic before becoming a hit. Squint and you might realise it’s essentially ‘Can’t Be Tamed’ in message and theme (only less embarrassing) but there’s also Joan Jett vocal snarl and some slick electro-pop bounce, with a kind of rubbery disco also seen on Dua’s Future Nostalgia & Kylie’s Disco. Miley’s musical search for a home has seen her attempt several guises, few of them convincing. With ‘Midnight Sky’ she’s found a sound that fits her hand in glove.

Nightly – the movies

Gauzy, blissful, shoegaze inflected synthpop. The kind of perfect chorus that lodges in your brain and never comes unstuck. A touch of The 1975 is apparent, but that band never wrote anything this tender. Full of the uncertainty of a relationship in its infancy, it’s a beautifully restrained and honest plea for reciprocity and commitment. A great and underrated song.

Dua Lipa – Levitating

That fucking Morrisons ad is trying to make me hate this song – but we won’t be so easily thrown off. One of many highlights on Future Nostalgia. Hung around a quirky monk-chant synth line from a dusty old Roland VP 330, ‘Levitating’ expands this android chorale into a roller-rink shuffle. A nu-disco thriller recalling the glory days of Jamiroquai’s ‘Little L’. Shame the Madonna remix didn’t quite cut it.

Read our review of Future Nostalgia here.

Anoraak – Gang feat. Sarah Maison

So French it hurts. Right down to the topless cover art. This couldn’t be more French if it was sat outside a cafe in Montmarte, wearing dark glasses, drinking black coffee and smoking a cigarette. Perfectly accented vocals, jazzy keys and only some wacky retro synth effects pointing to Anoraak’s roots in the synthwave community. A weird and riotous anthem.

The 1975 – You & Me Together Song

Fans might prefer the more classic 1975 sound of ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)‘, but this beats it out. Captures perfectly the optimism of the late 90s and 00s. Bittersweet chorus, Travis-lite guitars, and a simple but gorgeous melody predicated on the old saw “Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it happened“. I’ve never related more to the lyric “We went to Winter Wonderland / And it was shit but we were happy” – because I’ve been and it is a bit shit, but if you’re with the right person it isn’t. Unrequited love was the vibe of 2020.

Read our review of Notes On A Conditional Form here.

Headie One ft AJ Tracey & Stormzy – Ain’t It Different

90s kids will be crying over that Crazy Town sample, but this was a standout. A sort of grime posse-cut with Stormzy, AJ Tracey & Headie One trading fours. Not all of them land their verses, but they don’t need to; the groove is unbeatable, carrying along even the most lumpen bars in its slipstream. Headie One blew up with drill music, but the real dark secret is that this is pop at heart. His day-oners might be calling this a sell out, and maybe it is. Also one of the best hits of the year, so beat that with a stick.

Honourable Mention

Cardi B – WAP feat. Megan Thee Stallion

‘WAP’ isn’t a great song, it’s barely a song: more a zeitgeist moment akin to what we had last year with ‘Old Town Road’. That isn’t a dig, because it’s so amazingly direct and obvious it’s hard not to love. I forget, was it Yeats or Byron who said “Put this pussy right in your face” I can’t remember. It’s so blunt and dumb, and lovable for that; and let’s not forget, guys have been making blunt dumb songs about their sex lives for a while now. Time to level the field.

The Weeknd – Blinding Lights

Had to be. Not a surprising or novel choice; but come on. It actually released late 2019 but we’re bending the rules since this song dominated early 2020. A neon-lit nightride of perdition and one of the cleanest synth hooks, period. Calls back to Weeknd’s long-standing love of the Drive soundtrack. An enormous chorus and an unbeatable vocal flex from The Weeknd ensures this one is set for classic status. The remix is godly.

Read our review of After Hours here.

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