With the clubs shut and parties called off, this year saw music fans denied of the ritual thrill of anointing the year’s club banger or song of the summer – at least in any traditional sense. But despite our radically atomised way of experiencing the majority of new music in 2020, there were songs that still made their mark, offering emotional shape, and a timestamp, to a year that frequently felt drifting and shapeless. Then, there were the hits that never needed the real world anyway, and which point to a new chapter in disruptive pop. These are our top tracks of the year.
Peppers and Onions
Tierra Whack is the kind of artist you just want to be mates with. She’s stupidly talented, sure, but also charismatic, quick-witted and doesn’t appear to take life too seriously – traits we could all use in our lives. I mention her pal appeal as her track Peppers and Onions sees her opening up to herself and her fanbase about the spotlight, its stressors and figuring things out as she goes along. It’s earnest, vulnerable and “human” – the beat’s wild, too – with Whack delivering her lyrics, or confessions, to you as a friend, as opposed to a distant listener.
party 4 u
In some ways, the heavily reported time constraints that Charli XCX put herself under to deliver her “lockdown album” ended up eclipsing the music itself. Behind all the swipe-ups and face filters lay some of the most beautiful songwriting of her prolific career. Especially party 4 u, a pillow-soft paean to making a night of it that tingles and drifts at a different pace to Charli’s capital-B bangers. She’s a master of bringing the party, but she’s just as magic at capturing the afterglow.
Stunnin' ft. Harm Franklin
When historians write about this era of pop music, TikTok will be central to the story. And Stunnin’, the ludicrously infectious debut single by Nepali Canadian artist Curtis Waters should be the soundtrack. From his bedroom in North Carolina, Waters crafted a song and accompanying dance routine which spread rapidly on TikTok – a musical universe which rewards simplicity and catchiness. You can understand why, channelling the rhythmic lure of golden-era Pharrell, the cartoonish lyrical vividness of OutKast and the DIY aesthetics of Tyler, the Creator, Waters struck gold and everyone was invited.
Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande
Rain On Me
Streamline / Interscope
Lady Gaga’s much-anticipated comeback album Chromatica arguably gave us only one truly zeitgeist-y moment, but what a moment it was. Pairing with Ariana Grande, whose monumental vocal talent still refuses to be eclipsed by her stardom, Gaga delivered Rain On Me, the kind of immediately essential pop collaboration that solidifies both parties as at the top of their game. Within literal minutes of its release, gay Twitter deemed the track its 2020 anthem, and months later, it’s lost none of its urgency. “I’d rather be dry but at least I’m alive”: what encompasses this past year more than this refrain of resignation?
When It's All Over ft. Kelela
Fauzia doesn’t so much create a sound world as creates a sound out of the world. One of the first things we hear on When It’s All Over is rushing water, and it prepares us for a breed of club music that is altogether more lush, more tangible. The angelic coos of Kelela greet us in a humid, hypnotic haze. None of this belies the storm of breakbeats which dominate the latter half of the track, and the sudden release is orgasmic. Good club music engages the listener kinetically, and while Fauzia can certainly manipulate our bodies into motion, her ability to access the softer parts of our emotional palette with equal intuition verges on the supernatural.
Yellow Is the Colour of Her Eyes
Loma Vista Recordings
Written during the illness of Sophia Allison’s mother, the seven-minute centrepiece to color theory confronts the agony of grief and, remarkably, holds it up to the light. “The bright August sun feels like yellow/ And the white of her eyes is so yellow,” runs the opening couplet, one of the many incidences when a stark image captures the dimensions of a pain unimaginable. But there’s something else caught in the song’s unflinching gaze, its silvery guitar licks and slouching, unhurried tempo and the ascendent guitar solo. A suggestion of something to be salvaged amidst the sadness, a sense of acceptance, and maybe, just maybe, release.
Representing the UK drill collective Harlem Spartans, Blanco’s tight flows and tighter wordplay have marked him out as a potent force as a solo artist. Shippūden – a reference to the Naruto character of the same name – blended a stripped back and smooth beat, courtesy of Alexaybeats, with far reaching pop cultural references, from Dragonball Z to Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It also showcased Blanco’s nimble delivery, ear for beats and his quiet, compelling charisma – and provided more evidence that Blanco has his gaze fixed beyond the drill scene in which he made his name.
We Got Together
Good God, did we need this song. We Got Together is a Colossus of disco-pop – the hardest, dirtiest, nastiest antidote to club-homesickness you can possibly imagine. Wisely, Roísín Murphy keeps things as simple and ambiguous as possible. We don’t know who or what has “got together”, but it is irrelevant. All that matters is this beat – so relentlessly danceable that you are basically powerless to do anything but strut and stomp in awe.
For Want of Gelt
While so much electronic music is built on principles of repetition and stasis, Minor Science’s music errs towards a state of constant flux. Don’t ever expect to hear the same eight bars twice. Instead, his music grows perpetually – every sound mutating at pace, forming interwoven narratives where sounds are governed by cause and effect, all working towards some emphatic conclusion. In the case of For Want of Gelt, this endpoint is a monumental drum solo (something of a rarity in dance music). Built from a cacophony of MIDI percussion hits, the finale sounds like someone scrolling at speed through a folder of samples – and it’s the wildest club music moment of 2020 by some way.
How You Like That
In a very short period of time, BLACKPINK have gone from successful K-pop girl group to bonafide international lifestyle brand, racking up YouTube views in the billions and cementing their legacy as global icons. In the past decade, K-pop has evolved from niche interest to pop music phenomenon, and How You Like That is basically a three-minute explanation as to why. Candy-coated vocals, brassy rap verses, a fuzzy beat-drop that wouldn’t feel out of place at an EDM festival: these are the elements that catapulted BLACKPINK to the top of the K-pop pecking order, and they are on their best display here.
There’s joy and thrill in chaos as Vancouver’s Crack Cloud prove on Ouster Stew. Where some neighbouring tracks on their debut album, Pain Olympics, feel like they’re exorcising demons in blasts of distorted vocals and discordant shocks of noise, here the seven-piece find the light – even if they still sound like they’re on the brink of collapse. “Excommunicated, we are free,” barks singer and drummer Zach Choy, before celebrating liberation with a tumbling drum solo that threatens to unhinge everything. “I do not need my body,” cries out a distant voice, an exaltation that resonates as Ouster Stew’s abrupt end dumps you back down from post-punk nirvana.
Repeat ft. Koffee
Black Butter Records
Koffee from Spanish Town in Jamaica and J Hus from Stratford in London share a superpower that most hit-makers dream of – an ability to navigate an instrumental so dynamically that lyrics become completely unimportant. Nowhere is this clearer than on Repeat, a lithe, pared-down highlight from Big Conspiracy. Every syllable lands softly with Hus’ breathy lower register counterpointing Koffee’s exuberant verses. A link-up that feels less like collaboration and more like family.
KLK ft. Rosalia
There are few artists making club music as intelligent as Arca these days. For one, KLK (off-spelling of keloké, Dominican slang for “what’s up”), off her latest offering KiCk i, is a masterclass in decolonized dancefloor deconstruction. Co-produced with fellow Venezuelan musician Luis Garban, aka Cardopusher, Arca takes the reliably soaring vocals of neo-flamenco phenom Rosalía, grinds them to shreds, distorts them, and tosses them into a PC reggaetón abyss. Inspired by the furruco, a friction drum responsible for the beat of traditional Venezuelan gaitas, Arca grounds herself in two lineages: the country that birthed her and the underground queer dancefloors that made her.
From the uncomfortable intimacy of Easy Easy to the layered cacophony of Dum Surfer, few artists communicate claustrophobia quite as adroitly as Archy Marshall. Stoned Again – from Marshall’s third LP Man Alive! – marks a new high on that score. Pulling the listener under with a fug of fuzzed-out bass, whiplash-inducing percussion and menacing multi-tracked vocals, Marshall’s belligerent stream-of-consciousness ricochets between sneering social observations (“Back in the park with the middle class yobs trying to get lucky”) and the most brilliantly banal of couplets (“I’m feeling so lucky / On my 10th birthday, got a puppy”). Oppressively airless and absurd, it is 2020 in a nutshell.
Origami ft. John Glacier and Shygirl
Three of London’s most exciting forces in forward-facing rap and club music unite. LYAM (sometimes known as loveyouinthemorning) tapped south east London rapper Shygirl and enigmatic multidisciplinary artist John Glacier for a one-off collaboration. The result is a high-impact off-centre banger where Glacier’s palpable charisma on record narrowly steals the show. Listen once and you’ll have her deadpan delivery of “Dance with me and you’re dancing with the stars” in your head for the rest of the week.
Whether it’s playing arenas with The 1975, earning a superfan in Taylor Swift, or achieving viral fame on TikTok after having her debut single sampled by Powfu, there are plenty of achievements that Bea Kristi could chalk up as the most important of her career so far. You could argue, however, it was writing Care. Released in July, the lead single from her debut album, Fake-It Flowers, solidifies the British-Filipino’s singer’s sound with a perfect cross-pollination of grunge-inspired guitar fuzz, gargantuan pop hooks and brutal kiss-offs like “I don’t want your sympathy/ Stop saying you give a shit,” delivered in a deceptively sweet coo.
What a year for Anz. The Manchester-based artist has cemented her status as a rising star on the underground scene with Loos In Twos. A three-track EP made up of club weaponry, Anz continues the great Hessle Audio tradition of drum-heavy club workouts. Beginning with the title track’s breakbeat smash, it’s the buoyant and playful Gary Mission on the B-side that’s the standout stomper. A rolling, percussive number, it stacks up rubbery sonics with kick drum intervals, handclaps and a romping sub-bass. If there’s anything to look forward to past the pandemic, it’s the exhilaration of Gary Mission ringing out across dancefloors.
Cast your mind back to March. What do you think of? Clap for carers? The sound of birdsong? Maybe. But also, Future Nostalgia. Dua Lipa’s second album really did offer succour when it crash landed into that surreal moment in spring. Hallucinate is, arguably, the record’s finest moment: three minutes of escapism that’s literate in pop history while still feeling decidedly cool. A single that channels Daft Punk and The Show-era Girls Aloud with a twist of that 21st-century everywoman moxy that is Dua Lipa’s calling card? Oh, how we needed that.
We Had a Good Time
Lisbon-based pop polymath Nathan Jenkins, aka Bullion, has refined the art of downsizing something widescreen into something disarmingly intimate. This year, he furthered this ‘hi-def but keep it chill’ approach on We Had A Good Time EP. The title track and standout, which was co-written with Diego Herrera aka Suzanne Kraft, opens with the line “So I’m the lucky one“, signalling the start of something sweet and contemplative. But, as the song progresses there are hints – a thunder clap here, a faltering lyric there – that there’s something darker stirring within those blissful textures.
Christine & The Queens
People I've Been Sad
If you could only listen to one track from Christine and the Queen’s excellent La vita nuova EP, let it be this one. Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier has always had an uncanny way of making beauty out of melancholy, perhaps because matters of existential dread sound better in French? But this moody cut captured a strain of FOMO and malaise that was unique to this year. “Been missing out for way too long” Letissier elegantly laments, before unpacking all the heavy feelings which have been weighing her down over warm currents of swirling synths. We hear you, Chris.
Safaera ft. Jowell & Randy and Ñengo Flow
In the eye of the horny hurricane of Latin Trap titan Bad Bunny’s YHLQMDLG lies “Safaera”, a storm of key changes and slow-fast perreo featuring tight assists from reggaetón OG Ñengo Flow and genre pioneers Jowell & Randy. The song serves as tribute to both the golden age of reggaetón El Conejo Malo grew up in and the anything-goes vibe of Puerto Rico’s underground marquesinas, DIY parties where hearing the tumbi melody of Missy Elliot’s Get Ur Freak On interspersed with a dembow beat wouldn’t feel out of place. And lest we forget Bad Bunny’s most memorable lyric to date – translated from Spanish, “If your boyfriend doesn’t eat your ass/ What’s the point?“
E. R. Pulgar
For many, 2020 has belonged to Pa Salieu. It didn’t take long for the Gambia-born, Coventry-raised rapper to make his presence felt with his infectious hooks and gutter subject matter at the start of the year – and the scene has paid close attention ever since. Following up the explosive Frontline was a tough ask, but Betty, with its ominous, menacing sonics, and the motif of ‘Betty’ as both a woman and a weapon, is too enticing, too charismatic to ignore. Not many can make drugs and violence sound this addictive, but it was light work for a star in waiting.
Gospel for a New Century
Going from enigmatic electronic antihero to carnal rock/funk god with Prince-like prowess is a huge conceptual leap, one Yves Tumor manages to make in, oh, about 45 seconds. As the brash, heraldic opener to a record full of woozy, angular longing, Gospel for a New Century encapsulates the sonic and thematic underpinnings of Tumor’s sophomore solo project with diamond-like precision. Tumor’s lounge singer croon can’t hide the cruel, unforgiving slides into minor chords, as if the world of the song is souring around your ears, on the brink of rotting off entirely. It’s a love song, and (as the Purple One would say) it’s a sign o’ the times.
There’s a curious kind of joy often experienced when an artist you’ve long admired appears to truly come into their own. It was a feeling many experienced when Doncaster-born India Jordan released their brilliant For You EP back in April. The record was a potent dose of feel-good bangers which channelled dance music’s most euphoric impulses. It was the eponymous title track though, that represented Jordan at their best; a grin-inducing filter house bop that functions as a conduit for pure, untapped pleasure. In a year when the club became a distant memory, For You made those dancefloor memories come flooding back.
Megan Thee Stallion
Savage Remix ft. Beyoncé
It’s been quite a ride for Megan Thee Stallion. After building the momentum with 2019’s Hot Girl Summer, 2020 proved altogether more complicated for the Houston rapper born Megan Pete. Still, it will surely be Savage, the lead single from her SUGA EP, that will come to define her tumultuous year. The infectious banger is, at its heart, an empowering anthem about her multidimensionality as a grown woman thrust into the spotlight. Or, as she confidently puts it: “I’m a savage/ Classy, bougie, ratchet/ Sassy, moody, nasty.”
First came the song’s viral success as choreographer Keara Wilson’s Savage dance challenge took TikTok by storm. Little did we know then that this was only the first phase of the song’s 2020 takeover. When Beyoncé decided to hop on the remix of Savage, the track’s cultural stronghold was well and truly secured. Touchingly, when speaking about the feature on Instagram Live, Megan was so overwhelmed that she cried – after all, few things hold as much significance as a Beyoncé endorsement.
But the Savage remix was so much more than a perfectly timed co-sign. This completely reimagined version of Savage was playful, whip-smart and, crucially, reminded us of the potency of a well-executed remix. Between timely references to OnlyFans and TikTok, Megan and Beyoncé bond over their Houston heritage. Joy radiates from Beyoncé as she harnesses the colloquialisms of her Southern tongue and drops captionable lines like, “If you don’t jump to put jeans on, baby, you don’t feel my pain”. On another verse, she raps, “I’m a bad bitch, she’s a savage, no comparison here,” making plain that there’s space at the top for them both to share, while the outro sees her declare: “I’m a savage/ It’s Thee Stallion and the B/ H-Town, goin’ down”. In that moment, it felt like a member of Houston royalty was passing the torch to the next generation. Fittingly, in recognition of their hometown roots, all of the song’s proceeds benefit Bread of Life Houston’s Covid-19 relief efforts. An act of charity that moved the city’s mayor to the point of honouring them with their own respective days.
Ultimately, for a track that preaches self-worth, there could be no better pairing. Megan refuses to compromise her femininity or sexuality for anyone, constantly making space for all the parts of herself in everything that she does. Few artists have gone from spitting fire in the booth to penning an op-ed in the New York Times. But Megan pulled it off, writing about the importance of speaking up for Black women and protecting them from violence. While it’s still too early to tell if this politicised Megan is here to stay, she did take her commitment to the next level during a recent Saturday Night Live performance. In it, she called out Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron on the stage backdrop for his decision to not seek charges against the police officers that killed Breonna Taylor. Megan The Stallion will not be silenced, then. And despite the twists and turns of a surreal 12 months, encompassing personal lows and career highs, Megan has emerged on the other side standing stronger than ever. Savage is testament to that.