Music is powerful. One minute it's an adrenaline rush, the next it's a comfort blanket. Films, books, and video games entertain and captivate us, but there's nothing quite like a song that leaves you inspired. You know the feeling. It can galvanise you for days. We dread to think how we would have coped without the fabulous new music released over the course of 2020.
Ranking our 10 favourites was perhaps even more of a challenge than usual. Maybe we just had more time to contemplate such things. In any case, here are the songs that kept us in check this year. We just live in hope that, soon enough, we will be able to experience some of these tracks performed live, shoulder to shoulder, beer in hand, with sweat dripping off the ceiling. Or, you know, just sitting down with a pair of binoculars at the O2 Arena.
10. “Rolling” // Michael Kiwanuka
Although Kiwanuka was released at the end of 2019, I’ve had it on repeat like a comfort blanket all year. Out in spring this year, “Rolling” was the one of the last singles to be released from the LP, and considering how much I’ve listened to the Mercury Prize-winning album it’d be a crime not to include it on my year-end list.
The jazzy percussion, bluesy guitars, and funky bassline come together with Kiwanuka’s soulful vocals to form a track that’s like honey in your ears. Lyrically it’s simple but uplifting — ‘rolling with the times, don’t be late’ — a refrain that builds to a crescendo with flanged guitar and gospel-choir backing vocals at the end of the track.
The influence of producer Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley) comes through in the smooth, crooning vocals, vintage instrumentation and psychedelic-soul direction of the track, which combines with Kiwanuka’s laid-back, sanguine tone to form a single that’s warming, lavish, and a delight to listen to. It’s a dreamy, silky smooth yet energising single; it feels like stepping into a hot bath on a cold day, or getting a pat on the shoulder that says everything’s going to be okay — which I, for one, certainly needed this year.
9. “Saturnine and Iron Jaw” // All Them Witches
All Them Witches are a band of many talents. Whilst their discography can vary in style, song writing, and overall ‘feel’, the most recent edition, Nothing as the Ideal does what they always do so well: create a tangible, real sense of atmosphere. The first single from Nothing as the Ideal, “Saturnine & Iron Jaw” does this extremely well. The near 90-second intro (consisting mainly of ambient sounds and distorted cracked vocals) would not be out of place in a horror film. However, it acts to build the anticipation of the listener to near itching levels.
It is two minutes in before we hear a discernible melody. But when it comes, it does not disappoint. This track walks the line between ethereal reverbed vocals in the (loose) chorus and the punch and staccato guitar riff in the verse. Layer on top viscerally visual lyrics and you have all the makings of a great blues rock single, albeit a very All Them Witches blues rock. For any new listeners, “Saturnine & Iron Jaw” makes a great entry into the band’s sound. It perfectly exemplifies their ability to mix and marry countless influences into a single track. As these lists hopefully show, some good things came out of 2020, and this single is without a doubt one of them.
8. “Melt!” // Kelly Lee Owens
“Melt!” to my mind represents Kelly Lee Owen’s Inner Song at its best. It’s powerful, elegant, ice cool, expertly mixed, and super, super catchy. It’s a beautiful piece of music, shivering along the electronic sweet spot between hypnotic trance and delirious danceability. All that’s missing is Owen’s soaring vocals. Luckily, they’re well represented elsewhere on the record.
In a way the instrumental focus on “Melt!” is why it’s just the one to highlight from the album. Owen’s performance is stunning, yes, but so too is its production and composition. “Melt!” is a three and a half minute masterclass in why that’s where the magic really starts. I have well documented reservations about IDM but Kelly Lee Owens put in all the stops needed on “Melt!” for me to shut up, listen, and enjoy.
7. “Teenage Headache Dreams” // Mura Masa
It goes without saying that Mura Masa is a fantastic producer, capable of elevating the simplest hooks into naggingly moreish and complete tracks tied together by a trademark sense of serenity. He’s also got a habit of finding ideal collaborators and making the most of their abilities, and in Ellie Rowsell it’s safe to say he held true to that reputation. The cutesy, simplistic intro to “Teenage Headache Dreams” taps directly into a certain naivety that makes Wolf Alice so palettable, with a funky but soft-hitting one-two stomp to the percussion and sudden injections of complexity that magnify the track’s themes.
As the bass hook kicks in — in tandem with Rowsell’s inimitable, rich, soaring vocals — the track takes on a life of its own as an endlessly expanding and contracting soundscape that mimics the chaotic and romantic thinking patterns of a teenager. Once it gets going, its noisy, messy, frenetic, and impassioned arrangements flash by in moments of near-confusion, held together by an unerring beat and enthralling, dynamic vocals from Rowsell. I was hoping we’d get the third Wolf Alice album at some point this year, but in the meantime I’ll happily settle for the fine chemistry that Mura Masa’s captured with their frontwoman.
6. “Pain Everyday” // clipping.
Clipping treated us to another horror-inspired rap album this year with Visions of Bodies Being Burned, and whilst its release didn't quite leave the same mark on me as 2019's excellent There Existed an Addiction to Blood it does contain some stunning highlights. Most notable of all is “Pain Everyday”, a striking 7/4 breakcore piece that rises to the most incredible climax, with beautiful strings caught in a frenzied storm of percussion.
Although the similarities between Visions and its predecessor remains a common criticism, “Pain Everyday” is an obvious exception. If it wasn't for Daveed Diggs and his irresistible flow (the man is finally getting the recognition he deserves) you'd be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Squarepusher, or even Venetian Snares. It's a powerful piece that is perfectly placed on the record. “Pain Everyday” is one of the most exquisite tracks I've listened to this year. I only wish it were longer, as I can't quite get enough of it.
5. “Me in 20 Years” // Moses Sumney
The first time I listened to “Me in 20 Years” I was left speechless by its intensity. It's an utterly beautiful piece of music that continues to give me goosebumps after months of listening. Moses Sumney is one of the most unique voices in modern music, and his recent album græ is only likely to get better with age. There are multiple moments on the record that captivate me, but none more so than “Me in 20 Years”. Hearing Sumney's falsetto's fly gives me a similar sensation to listening to Prince, Jeff Buckley, and Thom Yorke. Fine company indeed.
Sumney's lyrics are touching, and occasionally haunting. The second verse in particular is unforgettable: 'hey me in twenty years, does your milk still turn to rot too soon?'. Sumney's profoundly honest words soar over instrumentation that is incongruous, yet wonderful. Graceful keyboard notes are intensified by IDM style percussion and the most beautiful of vocal harmonies. The result leaves me floored. Moses Sumney is an artist to be cherished, and should certainly be considered to be in the same scope as the likes of Frank Ocean. “Me in 20 Years” is quite simply magical.
4. “Ooh La La” // Run the Jewels
It feels an age ago that Run The Jewels were releasing teaser singles for their 2020 release. Harking back to the ’90s ‘golden era’, with a Gang Starr sample and a credit for DJ Premier, “ooh la la” was a fresh sound from RTJ, making a statement of intent for the upcoming album (which didn’t disappoint either).
Lumbering in with its off-kilter piano sample and subby bombast, the track’s sure to elicit a nod and a smirk. A simple but strong beat underlines the whole affair, with an airhorn or two thrown in for good measure. Killer Mike and El-P have some killer lines here, managing to call out an age of disinformation and corruption while referencing El-P’s hatred of eggs all at once.
“ooh la la” was a regular in my summer soundtrack and it has remained an earworm ever since. It’s well deserving of its position up here in our top 10, and I doubt it’ll be the last time we see RTJ here either.
3. “JU$T” // Run the Jewels
Is anyone really free when we’re controlled by money, capitalism, and a corrupt government? A big question, but one Run The Jewels tackle deftly in the punchy, frank “JU$T”. There aren’t any bells and whistles on this track, but it doesn’t need them: it’s a protest anthem dominated by a harsh bassline and biting flows.
The chorus of ‘Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar’ is the filling in the sandwich of harsh realities, personal observations, and (of course) witty lyricism delivered by Killer Mike and El-P. Zack de la Rocha’s feature ramps up the punk defiance while Pharrell Williams adds a melodic touch to the no-frills, bass-driven production. It’s darkly comic, ragging on the hypocrisy of systemic racism in the modern world (‘Master of these politics, you swear that you got options (slave) / Master of opinion ’cause you vote with the white collar (slave)’) and delivers a string of home-truths and nimble analyses of how modern society works.
“JU$T” brings a new flavour of protest song, with punchy bass echoing the bullets fired at innocent Black Americans, a marching beat reminiscent of the global BLM demos, and a wake-up call to Western society. On top of that, it’s an insanely fun track to listen to, and it’ll sound fantastic when we finally get to hear it live. It’s pertinent, a distinctly-2020 single, and one I couldn’t have done without.
2. “Held Down” // Laura Marling
We’ve done our fair share of gushing about Laura Marling over the years and the very tender, very warm, very resolute Song for Our Daughter was no exception. “Held Down” embodies much of what makes the album so affecting, and so unlike anything that had come before. It’s Marling’s signature sound ramped up a notch, going harder and travelling further, with a pop-like ear for melodies to boot. It’s an easy, easing listen.
The harmonies find strength in simplicity and the band sways beautifully as it drives forward, bleeding from acoustic into electric as the song reaches its climax. Marling’s lyrics and vocals are wonderful, as ever. Hearing her dabble in more expansive songs was such a treat, and just what a lot of people needed this year. She said that she ‘indulged in lushness a bit more than I had done previously.’ I hope the indulgences keep on coming.
1. “Mr. Motivator” // IDLES
If ever there was a year for a song like “Mr. Motivator” to burst onto the scene, it was 2020. What a horrible time it's been. The devastating ramifications of COVID have turned us into miserable bastards with a severe lack of drive and energy. Releasing this particular track during lockdown – a bad time for even the most positive-minded people - was a masterstroke from IDLES. “Mr. Motivator” is as fun as it is galvanising, accompanied by a thoroughly amusing music video that features members of a wonderful online community named AF Gang. It never fails to raise a smile. Once again, Joe Talbot is on fine form, with absurd references to everyone from Connor McGregor to Delia Smith. It's thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, and incredibly addictive. I wouldn't say “Mr. Motivator” is the greatest song of 2020, but it's absolutely one of my favourites. Cheers for the pick-me-up, chaps.
“Mr. Motivator” dropped at a pretty essential moment in my lockdown experience — around the time I was beyond the novelty, tired of Animal Crossing, and falling into anxious misery. If anything could represent everything I was sick of, it was the endless string of corporate TV ads reminding us, via the medium of low-res home video clips of people grinning and bearing it, that times were weird but we were all in it together. Oh, and we should buy more of their shit. I wasn’t grinning and bearing it by that point, and no amount of racket being made for key workers on a Thursday night was going to alter that, but “Mr. Motivator” came along and breathed a bit of life back into me.
The music video, a facsimile of the inane ads I’ve already moaned about, struck on a legitimacy and sense of togetherness that I hadn’t realised I was missing so badly, and the typically barnstorming, sharp-edged, and driving instrumentation and lyricism of a top IDLES track sealed the deal. I don’t want to suggest “Mr. Motivator” set me on a course to recover from — or accept — 2020's endless bullshit, but it didn’t half kick me out of my stupor.