Written by Sam Murphy - Illustrated by Bianca Bosso
We don't need to go in 2020, it was a trash fire. The only thing that survived it was the music which brought relief and an outlet to express the frustrations of a year most of us would be happy to forget.
Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake was an intergalactic trip. He took us from woozy trap to melodic rap with the click of a finger, taking on each mode with ease. Celebration Station is the album’s melodic high-point. A weightless, relentless song that’s undeniably triumphant.
G Flip was introduced last year as Australia’s next great pop hope and she solidified that this year with her best single to date. Hyperfine is a rollicking, angsty pop song that carefully treads a tumultuous relationship. As frustrated as she is here, it’s the pleading for a solution that cuts through - “If you’re hurting then please tell me prior / Don’t get up and leave.”
Kylie knew that 2020 was too much to swallow already. By simply calling her album DISCO, she promised no complications, just straight-up bops. Say Something was the first one out of the gates and it set the project up expertly. It’s a shimmering, elegant cut that houses the elongated drama of I Believe In You and the euphoric extravagance of All The Lovers.
There’s a calmness to the way Wafia approaches relationships. She has this impossible knack for considering her situation and expressing it in a measured, meditated manner. Hurricane is a serene pop cut. A stirring admission of gratitude delivered through crystal clear vocals.
The transition between Chromatica II and 911 made waves this year. It was the pièce de résistance of the album. The intro setting us up for the thundering crash of 911. It’s a dizzying, relentless track that doesn’t let up for a second, racing along with a head-pounding beat and distorting vocals. This is Gaga reckoning with her mental health, attacked at every angle by damaging thoughts. And yet, somehow the production makes it feels like a resolution.
In a year without clubs, we turned to dance music this year. Euphoric moments of escapism that mostly conjured nostalgia. Romy recognised that with Lifetime, a joyous nod to the ‘90s and ‘00s Eurodance that defined her upbringing. Lifetime considers the world ending and then zeroes in on the relationships most important to her, clinging to comfort in a moment of uncertainty. It’s a heartwarming statement made cuddlier by the sunshine-soaked production.
Troye Sivan’s IN A DREAM EP reckoned with a disintegrating relationship. It was sad, reckless, and, at times, emotionally confused but its stunning finale offered clarity. “I won't let you in again / That's the hardest thing I've ever said,” he sings, closing a chapter while still recognising there’s never any true finality to a relationship.
Tkay Maidza hit her stride this year, finding a musical pocket that installed her with a refreshing sense of confidence. Shook was the arrival. A blistering, braggadocious tune with ceremonial production that made it sound like a true arrival. Her bars are stronger than they’ve ever been and her delivery is unwavering as if she won’t stop until everyone’s listening.
Save A Kiss wasn’t written in a pandemic but somehow it captured many of its feelings. The strobing disco track becomes a love letter to the clubs and all the heightened senses that come with it. “Promise you it won’t be long / Just save a little bit of your lovin’ baby,” she sings as the strings swirl and the beat threatens a climactic return. The thought of eventually hearing this on the dancefloor kept us holding on in 2020.
Miley Cyrus has spent the majority of her career trying to find a sound that fit. On Midnight Sky, and the proceeding record Plastic Hearts, she’s finally found it. It’s a glistening, glamorous ‘80s rock record that manages to put her raspy voice and unrelenting personality in the best light. She rolls through it with an overbearing confidence that feels like a necessity for the song rather than a detractor.
We were stripped of nearly every big event this year. Festivals, sporting events, awards shoes were mostly canceled and when they weren’t they were offered in a DIY fashion. WAP came at a point where we were starving for an event and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion delivered. Thanks to Savage, Meg was one of the most hyped names out while Cardi’s return was always going to nab headlines. Instead of relying on hype, however, they shattered expectations. WAP goes dirtier and harder than any of us could’ve imagined upsetting everyone from cobwebbed Republicans to males who didn’t know how deep their double standards ran. The pop culture event of the year and a song that blew open the doors for the future of female rap.
Chloe x Halle are the sort act that can rely simply on their talents to impress. Do It isn’t showy or climatic, it’s a song that rolls at the same level for the entirety of its three-minute duration. Scott Storch’s beat is glossy but it’s left to Chloe and Halle to make it something special. And they do exactly that with flawless harmonies, an effortless cool and understated-yet-powerful charisma.
Kehlani came and did what she had to do this year without making much of a fuss of it. She made her own videos, confidently rolled the album out in the midst of a pandemic, and kept to an intimate R&B sound. Can I shines because it holds that same unfussed approach. It’s just Kehlani and that velvety voice delivering blistering bars, one after the other.
Positions is Ariana Grande’s most intimate work to date. While it mostly finds that intimacy in the bedroom, pov widens the lens, exploring the confidence that needs to be installed in you to feel completely secure in a relationship. Grande’s voice opens and flies in a stunning display that lays all her insecurities bare. While anxiety and self-doubt persist, she’s taking the love she’s receiving and translating it into self-love.
Bad Bunny made sure nobody left 2020 without hearing his boundary-breaking take on reggaeton. It was fun and inventive but, best of all, he was a breath of fresh air. Yo Perreo Sola comes from an album of highlights but it sticks out as the cheekiest thanks to its perky beat and his charismatic delivery. The video then took it a step further with Bad Bunny appearing in drag, spotlighting women’s rights and also shining a light on the LGBTQ community.
Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA is a wide-screen pop record with plenty of wild twists and turns. Bad Friend is not one of them. It’s the most straight-forward song of her career but it’s supremely written and bursting with emotion. It’s a nostalgic ode to friendship but one that assesses her role in the diminishment of it. It’s pretty clear by the end of the song that this is a tale of friendship naturally fading, as they do, but this is for all those who feel the overwhelming guilt of all the messages they’ve left unread.
Party 4 u was the only song on how i’m feeling now written before the pandemic but it somehow hits the hardest. It’s about “yearning to see someone but they’re not there,” according to Charli. Throwing a party that’s essentially just for them and then dealing with the crushing blow. In the context of the pandemic, it became a statement of loneliness. Picture a cheap disco light, tinny Bluetooth speaker, and cheap bottle of wine - wishing you had company but knowing it can’t happen. “I wish you'd get here, kiss my face / Instead you’re somewhere far away”, she sings, pleading to no one. As the beat twists and distorts and the vocals spiral, the emotion only swells more.
At one point, it looked like Levitating was playing second fiddle to Hallucinate as the next favourite single off Future Nostalgia. As the year has gone on, however, Levitate has continued to flower. It’s the breeziest Lipa song yet, gliding by over washy synths and nonchalant beats. There’s an irresistible groove to it though that continues to hypnotise. Eventually, it’s impossible to deny the motion of this song. By the time we’re at the bridge, we’re dancing our asses off even if we weren’t feeling it at the start.
There was a recklessness to the way Fiona Apple expressed emotion this year. She’s done tiptoeing around the expression of the things that weigh her down the most. It’s all coming out and it’s liberating. I Want You To Love Me is a love song to no one in particular. Moreso, it’s an exercise in breathing it all in and then letting it all out, whether it manifests in dolphin sounds or the urge to break the kitchen pans. “Bang it, bite it, bruise it,” she sings, grabbing life by the horns.
Songs of love and loss often need to be approached with a wide scope. We want to connect and too much detail makes it difficult to resonate with the artists’ experience. As far as songs go, Kyoto is as specific as they come. Bridgers is touring Kyoto but she can’t leave behind what she’s escaped at home. Despite the specificity of it though, there’s something so universal about the core of this song. That idea of escaping far away but forever being tied to what’s breaking you at home. Bridgers is a story-teller of the highest order and because of that Kyoto just bursts and bounds with emotion.
A song with a title that was one of Oxford Dictionaries word of the year in 2018 should feel calculated. Too intentional. The Chicks first single in 13 years isn’t any of those things. It comes from a place of pure anger stemming from a divorce and punches with some cutting lines (“Acting all above it when our friends divorced / What a lie”). Natalie Maines gives a potent vocal performance that oscillates between rage and vulnerability while the music rumbles behind her like a rally cry. Gaslighter is an emotional force in the context of divorce but more broadly it came at a time when many felt the need to stick a middle finger up to those in power.
Jessie Ware’s voice has always sounded best stretched out over a dance beat. She has an untarnished beauty to her vocals that’s like light hitting a disco ball. She gives any beat life but there’s something particularly special about Spotlight’s beat. It moves at the perfect pace for Ware, running at a danceable tempo while also giving Ware the room to elongate every last note. It’s dramatic and grandiose without ever becoming detached. We’re always brought back to that spotlight. Intimacy on the dance floor and the feeling of freeze time.
Summer often comes with the promise of potential. Like we’re to spend three months away from reality, basking in the sunshine. That’s, of course, never the case but it’s a fantasy that’s calming to entertain. August presents both the reality and the fantasy. It’s a tale of summer love that fades as the seasons change. “August slipped away like a bottle of wine,” Swift sings with sorrow as the instrumental swells with cinematic strings. As it fades, it becomes clear that this romance is fleeting. “So much for summer love and saying “us” / ‘Cause you weren’t mine to lose,” she sings, combining melodrama and nostalgia for one of her most potent musical moments. A sweeping masterpiece that may be Swift and producer Jack Antonoff’s opus.
The Weeknd is always at his best when he’s embracing the popstar within him. When he shies away from nothing and allows himself to play with pop’s grandest toolbox, he dazzles. In Your Eyes is The Weeknd embracing it all. Twinkling synths, sticky melodies, ‘80s beats, and a soaring saxophone. The combination should be overbearing but under the guidance of his silky voice, he pulls all the extremities together.
Rain On Me is Ariana Grande’s official knighting as pop royalty. Unbelievably, female pop collaborations of this magnitude have been rare in the last decade but this one combined a pop legend with the popstar-of-the-moment to make magic. The sheer force of their combined presence was always going to be special but Rain On Me brought something extra - heart. This is an anthem about pushing through your darkest days, something that both parties have plenty of experience with. It doesn’t claim to have made the breakthrough but its trying and that’s exactly what we needed this year, a pop anthem to tell us to keep pushing.
The best pop music triggers a visceral reaction. It pulses with movement so that it’s impossible to ignore and then offers instruction about how to feel next. There’s nothing disguised about what Lipa is doing on Physical. She’s commanding, “let’s get physical,” and she’s not taking no for an answer. The synths are alarming, the beat is urgent as she through a vocal performance that’s desperate in the best way. If you’re denying her by the end of it, you’re far more strong-willed than the rest of us.
Fiona Apple took on the patriarchy with stunning force on Fetch The Bolt Cutters but there’s something particularly defiant about Under The Table. It’s a stubborn, persistent and liberating with Apple refusing to be silenced as someone spills absolute nonsense at a dinner party. “Don’t you shush me,” she sings before the beat slams down like a fist hitting the table. The situation unfolds around the dinner table like a one scene and it’s thrilling to watch Apple come out on top.
A Beyonce collaboration in the early years of your career is absolutely unheard of but there’s been nothing particularly common about Megan’s success this bar. The Houston rapper has broken through just about every barrier there is, clocking hits and winning fans through hard work, skill, and an army of fans drawn to her natural charisma. Savage was the moment she became and superstar. Of course, Beyonce’s contribution is legendary (“If you don’t jump to put pants on you don’t know my pain!”) but Megan laid the bones providing a song that sizzles with confidence, cheek and ego. Hearing her go toe-to-toe with a fellow Texan, only solidifies what we already knew - she’s legendary.
If this didn’t already hit us hard upon release, it only resonated as the year went on. “It’s true that, people, I’ve been sad,” Christine sings with melancholy, continuing, “been missing out for way too long.” Christine has always been theatrical but she applies the idea of theatre to her own life. On People, I’ve Been Sad, it’s as if the entire world is watching her sadness and this is her admission. “You know the feeling,” she further declares over warbling synths as if she’s looking for support or community. In the midst of a global pandemic, it seems she wouldn’t be hard-pressed finding people that resonated.
There’s always been a certain sheen to everything Haim do. They have made a name for themselves as a playful, likeable group that have often made music that’s easy-to-digest. The Steps is their declaration that they’re fed up. They traded the gloss for a gritty, grinding guitar and vocals that crackle through reverb. “I don’t need your help,” Danielle Haim sings as she declares her independence with complete and utter frustration. The Steps sees Haim not giving up on a relationship but readjusting the power. Their ‘fuck it’ attitude brings them out on top and helped make this song an anthem for any minority that just felt completely fed up this year. It’s a middle finger and its power just grows and grows. The finest thing Haim have ever done and the best song of the year.