At this point, we are running out of superlatives to describe 2020. We all know the drill by now. For a lot of people, art, film and especially music was the glue ensuring we kept ourselves together this year. Here is a list of the songs we cried to, wished we could hear in the club, and played to inject a bit of colour to a dull year. We reviewed them all and ranked our favourite tracks of the year.
Under normal circumstances, when creating an end of year list factors such as seismic live performances and groundbreaking album roll outs would contribute to the enormity of a release. However, we all know that so much music got lost in the noise of 2020, with no live shows to sustain the momentum and provide us with unforgettable memories that we attribute to a sense of connection to records. Still, there was a lot of good music to come out in the last 12 months, there were even some songs from 2019 that somehow managed to extend their shelf life into the following year and cruise to the top of our quarantine playlists. Artists like Charli XCX created a collaborative album in lockdown with the help of fans and acts like Travis Scott performed in weirdly captivating Fornite concerts.
All in all, it’s been a weird one, but we’ve looked back at the best tracks that soundtracked the weirdest year in our lifetime. Some provided escapism, others were for embracing the darker days and others were just straight heaters.
There’s something about the contrast between Aitch’s stuffy cadence and DigDat’s venomous delivery that projects a battle of the titans style competitive regional sparring.
Paying homage to the iconic rap battle in Eminem’s 8 Mile, Manchester’s Aitch and London spitter DigDat pass the mic like a hot potato in a snappy back and forth.
Simply put, ‘soulboy’ is good vibrations. Garnering a reputation as one of London’s most exciting party starters through his time spent on tour with slowthai and his pre-pandemic residencies, p-rallel‘s musical repertoire stretches into sounds outside the club.
Enlisting Greetea Peng for an inspired feature, the sun-kissed record is littered with uplifting horns and infectious strings throughout. Deserving of another reload next summer, it’s an anthem for better days.
Flipping outdated misogynistic hip hop tropes on their head is Megan Thee Stallion‘s bread and butter. In ‘Girls in the Hood’ she transformed a problematic Eazy E track into an empowering anthem.
No one hit the pocket as hard as Megan in 2020.
Jim-E Stack‘s EPHEMERA is one of 2020’s hidden gems. Rising from the ashes of collaborations that fell to the wayside, Jim-E reworked the leftovers from tracks with Bon Ivor, Dijon and Ant Clemons into a beautifully immersive record.
‘Can We‘ is the most heartfelt record on the album, that sees Jim-E introduce a beat switch to emphasise the triumphant registers on display from Kacy Hill.
G.O.O.D Music signee 070 Shake shared her debut album Modus Vivendi this year to critical acclaim.
Her first single of 2020, ‘Guilty Conscience’ is a glittering 80-inspired cut. Featuring glowing vocals over punchy 808s and running hi-hats it’s a pop music’s shoulder shrug to infidelity.
A question that has long plagued the greatest minds on earth was answered this year. What would Evanescence sound like on acid? A veteran in the shape of Grimes and rising star in Ashnikko joined forces to provide their offering – ‘Cry’.
The record’s mystic soundscape is interrupted by shredding guitar riffs and explosive vocals from the North Carolina shapeshifter in the anime-inspired visuals.
Breezy iDeygoke highlighted injustices across Ireland and wider society earlier this year with the powerful ‘Black Dubh’. Later, he looked inward with the release of the collaborative effort ‘Praying on a Gamble‘. Reflecting on his experience as a young Muslim in catholic Ireland, Breezy flows over a deliberate and thought-provoking instrumental from Art of Algebra, meditating over the difficulties of growing up in an at times unforgiving space.
Sonically it feels like a Young Fathers composition had they spent time at a mindfulness retreat.
Remember nights out?
Recorded before the world went on fire, Dublin’s Why-Axis shared visuals for ‘Bloodstain‘ in what felt like a bittersweet memorial to the ritual of nights out.
The song itself sees Why-Axis reflect on a turbulent romance, with bloodstains reflecting the pain that remains even after working through the proverbial wash of a relationship. A certified party starter, it’s a song that could live as comfortably in a party as it could on a sadboi playlist.
To put it lightly, Griselda’s Westside Gunn was busy in 2020. With three albums under his belt in the past 12 months, the Buffalo artist has imposed his throwback east-coast style on a rap game more inclined to melody in recent years.
Becoming an orchestrator of sorts, Gunn has a penchant for collaborations and has the awareness to let others shine on record for betterment of the track. On Pray For Paris he perfected this formula, inviting two heavy hitters in Joey Bada$$ and Tyler, The Creator for icy celebration of the life’s pleasures on a classy instrumental.
Joey rhymes about nights spent cruising around the Big Apple with Jay-Z over a glass of white, while Tyler soaks in the sun eulogizing his eccentricity.
NiNE8 Collective member NAYANA IZ asserts that she was born in London but made in India. ‘TNT’ is the synthesis of those cultures and saw her etch her name into ones to watch lists across the board this year.
Her years spent immersing herself in the melting pot of London’s rich music culture has resulted in a genuinely unique sound that’s instantly recognisable and equally infectious.
On ‘TNT’ NAYANA seamlessly pops shots at fake friends, showing her ruthless side over a head-nodding instrumental, illustrating she’s done with the nonsense.
When the world needed clarity Lil Baby set the mumbling style to one side and made his voice loud and clear.
In the midst of BLM protests, Lil Baby came through with ‘The Bigger Picture’. It’s arguably the Atlanta rapper’s most important song and simultaneously it dissolved any lingering doubts over his lyrical ability.
There’s an anger in his soul that’s met with conviction in his delivery, leaving a feeling that ‘The Bigger Picture’ is a protest anthem for the ages.
The South West of Ireland has become the country’s de facto hip hop capital in recent years through the emergence of the likes of Px Music, Rusangano Family and Denise Chaila.
Back in March, God Knows invited a squad of the most talented spitters together for a stupidly hard crew cut. Featuring a myriad of styles, it sees Hazey Haze’s riotous style interchange with the manic bars of Citrus Fresh, with Denise Chaila signposting her forthcoming success with some sharp wordplay.
Here’s hoping this cut gets the live rendition it deserves next year.
Esteemed beat maker Knxwledge has an incredible ability of expressing emotion through carefully looped samples and vocal cuts.
Pain, adversity and hardship make us human and on ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ Knxweldge tells us to lean into discomfort. Embracing our emotions doesn’t compromise who we are, it makes us whole.
Ireland’s most exciting young songwriter APRIL has had a busy 2020. Dropping two EPs and sharing a number of impressive videos, the Kildare native’s dreamy effort ‘New Conditions’s beauty lies in its simplicity.
Her mesmeric vocals are draped in an almost psychedelic approach to bedroom pop that’s DIY aesthetic is amplified by a homemade music video.
This year, NiNE8 Collective founder and hyphenate Lava La Rue shared news of her forthcoming EP Butter-Fly set to drop early 2021. It came with a dreamy new single ‘Angel’ featuring Deb Never.
‘Angel’ is a thoroughly transatlantic collaboration that also features trippy production from Isom Inis of Foster The People and sees Lava serve a number ready for the return of festivals.
Killer Mike and El-P returned with a wonky politically-charged cut ahead of the essential protest album of the year – RTJ 4.
‘Ooh La La‘ sees the pair tear down capitalism’s cannibalistic tendencies and look towards a better future built on empathy and a shared humanity.
Bonus points for a video that fantasises what the first-day post neoliberalism looks like.
Ireland’s most high profile rapper Rejjie Snow signposted his impending sophomore album this year with the release of ‘Cookie Chips’. The Dublin rapper has never been shy about his admiration for your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper – MF DOOM and he invited the masked villain for a guest verse on a surreal instrumental.
The breezy record features a dreamboat hook from Cam O’bi and DOOM’s trademark wordplay gets an extra kick through its juxtaposition to Rejjie’s smooth approach.
King Krule AKA Archy Marshall recently admitted he recorded ‘Stoned Again‘ before the release of his previous album The OOZ way back in 2016. The familiar howls of the jittery cut bear the frustration of a predictable routine.
Caught between reminiscing about better days shredding scratch cards and the seemingly inescapable allure of the devil’s lettuce, Archy’s trademark vocals exude a sense of inner turmoil.
Archy is a creature of comfort and ‘Stoned Again’ is a visceral expression of his propensity to fall into the same traps. It’s an anthem for inescapable monotony of the evenings this year.
It sounds curious to say Arlo Park‘s appeal arguably grew in a time where there are no shows. It’s not to say she isn’t amazing live (she is) but her comforting and meditative explorations of love and loss are the perfect precursor to any self-care routine.
The video for ‘Eugene‘ was directed by the Coyle Larner Brothers (Loyle Carner and his brother) and sees the BBC Sound of 2020 nominee explore the blurred lines between a modern day confusion of love and friendship.
GRAMMY-nominated veteran artist Freddie Gibbs is no flash in the pan. Spinning street tales for the guts of a decade, he’s only getting better with time and his collaborative album with legendary producer The Alchemist is up there with the very best of his work.
‘Scottie Beam‘ sees Gibbs and Rick Ross on the run from the feds with both spitting in typically ruthless fashion. It’s off to the Caymans for Gibbs.
Crafted in honour of his late friend ‘QADIR‘ is Nick Hakim’s tribute to Qadir Imhotep West, who passed away in 2018.
Fuelled by powerful layered vocals from KeiyaA, Pink Siifu, and Oyinda and drum patterns as delicate as life itself, it presents a powerful eulogy to a departed loved one.
The term ‘genre-bending’ gets thrown a lot these days. With the prominence of the internet and dissolving of traditional gatekeepers, cross-pollination is inevitable.
Ghanian artist Amaarae’s THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW is a vibrant and unpredictable cocktail of sounds. Pulling the lonerisms of emo into an afrobeat-inspired cut that was seemingly crafted in outer space.
Premiering on Youtube platform Colors back in September, Dublin rapper Kojaque enlisted Kwes Darko and Ryan Hargadon for ‘SHMELLY’.
Inspired by months couch surfing and a turbulent pre-covid tour schedule, it channels chaotic energy into a powerful commentary informed by his childhood on the struggles of a modern artist.
It had been five years since his last solo track when Jamie xx shared ‘Idontknow’.
It’s a whirlwind of a track that felt apt for the times we were living in with the unpredictable percussion and warped vocal samples providing a thoroughly chaotic energy.
Brent Faiyaz has built a legion of cult followers online for his drug-induced flagrant brand of RnB.
Formerly of Sonder, the Maryland native lives carefree on ‘Dead Man Walking’. Cruising through a woozy instrumental, Brent’s allure stems from the enigmatic mysticism around his character, but much like Frank Ocean you can find everything you need to know about him in his lyrics.
‘Dead Man Walking’ sees Brent wax lyrical about his hedonistic lifestyle, painting vivid pictures of cruising through the Vegas strip and celebrating his one shot at life approach.
It feels as though all the stars in the cosmos aligned in the the remix of Snoh Aalegra’s ‘Whoa’. Channeling the energy of a late night phone call into the track’s conversational approach, recruiting Pharrell to add an additional magic touch was a masterstroke on Snoh’s part.
There’s a magnetic chemistry that manifests itself in experiences of synesthesia and romantic memories.
Denise Chaila had an absolutely huge 2020. Her iconic performance at the National Gallery of Ireland was a bright spark in an otherwise dull year.
Brimming with personality, poise and lyrical potency, the south-west MC rarely wastes a word. ‘Chaila‘ is the unapologetic brushing off of people’s nonsense, whilst simultaneously laying down the law in regards to her identity.
More than anything, ‘Chaila‘ felt like the breakthrough moment for Ireland’s next star.
Working on her debut solo album Romy, of The XX, shared ‘Lifetime’ in September this year. Born to be blasted on sticky dance floors, the pulsing drums and bouncing synths inject a healthy dose of nostalgia into one of 2020’s best electro-pop records.
Venezuelan producer Arca linked up with Catalonian hit-maker ROSALÍA for an intergalactic reggaeton anthem. Lined with industrial synths and harsh percussion, the sound of cocked weapons hang on the coattails of ROSALÍA’s words throughout.
Going toe to toe with Arca’s destructive arrangement, the Barcelona songstress’ stuttering delivery ensures the track’s unpredictable and sweat-inducing rhythm will be soundtracking peak hour raves when clubs return.
Childish Gambino released an album this year?!
Arguably falling victim to the overpowering noise of the global pandemic’s initial onset, Donald Glover AKA Childish Gambino’s 3.15.20‘s didn’t have the shelf life to ride out 2020.
One of the standouts from the project though featured the ruthless offerings of GRAMMY-winning artist 21 Savage. Proving a valuable commodity in the feature game, Savage’s monotone delivery shines over a funkier offering.
Kieran Hebden AKA Four Tet released his tenth album in March this year via Text Records. The prolific producer’s ‘Teenage Birdsong’ weaves meditative flute notes and ethereal naturalistic soundscapes into an immersive cut that felt like a brief calm in the onset of the pandemic in March.
One of 2020’s break out stars, Ashnikko’s excessive style and bombastic approach is a welcome bit of escapism in a predictably dreary year.
Daisy sees the North Carolina artist use her space-age sound to tear down patriarchy.
ROSALÍA is a national treasure in her native Spain. Breaking boundaries for Hispanic artists, she’s been nominated for six Latin GRAMMYs and was the first Spanish artist to be nominated for the “English speaking” GRAMMYs.
Singing in an at times illegible cadence, ROSALÍA’s ‘Juro Que’ is a prime example of flamenco music’s tendency to prioritise emotion over verbal clarity. Pulling a sense of urgency from the claps and injecting stirring autotune vocals to the bridge, the Catalan queen is proof that you don’t have to understand the language to feel some kind of way.
Phoebe Bridger’s spectre-like imagery isn’t a stand alone gimmick. Her GRAMMY-nominated album Punisher is filled with ghostly soundscapes and hauntingly beautiful melodies.
Featuring harmonies from her tour manager on the chorus alongside muted kicks and understated and glitchy production ‘Garden Song‘ is a song to rest your racing heart rate to. Brimming with nostalgic imagery and whimsical musings of potential future experiences, it highlights the California songwriter’s ability to not exactly examine, but zoom out and observe a myriad of emotions and view them for what they are.
One of 2020’s break out stars, Pa Salieu joined forces with BackRoad Gee for a thumping effort in ‘My Family’.
The video has shades of Kendrick’s darting camera movements in ‘Humble’. However, the monochrome finish and chant-filled ode to their brothers have a more sinister edge.
Biig Piig’s music expertly captures the restlessness of young adulthood.
Born in Ireland, growing up in Spain and now residing in London, there’s a nomadic sense of wandering in her lackadaisical delivery that whistles freely over a variety of different styles.
‘Don’t Turn Around‘ was the NiNE8 Collective member’s second single of the year and all but confirmed the singer’s potential for crossover success. Infectious, bouncy and harking back to 80s disco, the track is testament to her ability to create chart ready hits without sacrificing authenticity.
Though originally surfacing last year, Dublin poet Dave Balfe’s For Those I Love project returned to the shadows before reappearing this year.
Primarily an extension of the work laid down by Dublin art collective Burnt Out, FTIL pays tribute to the late Paul Curran and celebrates the enduring love of friendship. ‘I Have A Love‘ is fuelled by expansive rave synths and channels intimate memories into a powerful ode to a close friend.
Having made his live performance debut on Jools Holland this year, the sky is the limit for FTIL.
Australian duo The Avalanches have a way of blending numerous layers of samples, a mish mash of drums and vocal contributions into a coherent sound without the record feeling too crowded. Sometimes it just feels like they are showing off in all honesty. Their 2001 album Since I Left You is said to have thousands of intricately laced samples across the record, but for their next album they’ve decided to invite a huge amount of features.
Ahead of the release, the pair shared ‘Wherever You Go’ that features Jamie xx, Neneh Cherry and CLYPSO.
The old saying goes “too many cooks spoil the broth”, but ‘Wherever You Go’ is a truly transcendent record that hits the collaborative sweet spot. The numerous vocal layers and synths that squelch like an extraterrestrial sponge, projecting the inimitable energy often found in basement dwelling raves that we are all missing so much.
First grabbing attention for his features on the Everything Is Recorded album and Headie One’s Gang EP this year, BERWYN’s stock rose quickly, receiving widespread praise for his DEMOTAPE/VEGA EP that followed.
Weaving spoken word odysseys over sparse stripped back instrumentals, the Trinidad-born London-raised performer has a emotive vernacular that candidly exposes his vulnerabilities.
‘GLORY‘ questions the inevitability of his pain, reflecting on the perilous situations he finds himself in.
Full disclosure, Dua Lipa’s ‘Don’t Start Now’ dropped at the tail end of 2019, but that didn’t stop it being one of the biggest anthems of 2020.
Dua has become the poster girl for post-breakup empowerment, following ‘New Rules’ and for anyone that felt some kind of way in 2020 ‘Don’t Start Now’ was the Popeye’s spinach necessary to get through the day. Seemingly growing in influence as the year went on, it’s yet another in a long list of hits on this list that feels throttled slightly and is ready to soundtrack the guilt-free hedonism in a post-COVID world.
Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s collaboration leaves little to the imagination as they swat misogynistic nay-sayers aside with their empowering calls to action. Bouncing over a looped sample of DJ Frank Ski’s ‘Whores In This House‘, two of the biggest artists on the planet collided to reclaim female sexuality.
In a year with no clubs, its shelf life has been extended by a flurry of TikToks that’ll ensure ‘WAP’ is top of set lists when doors reopen again.
While slowthai garnered a reputation as the UK’s most riotous act, ‘Feel Away’ sees the Northampton MC take an introspective turn. Having released thoughtful cuts before, the inclusion of James Blake’s soul-cleansing vocals provides an additional intimacy that was perhaps missing on Nothing Great About Britain.
Topped off with production from Mount Kimbie, the pensive drums and forgiving chords provide the perfect breeding ground for the British rapper’s honest affirmations.
The accompanying video is also worth a watch, with slowthai’s limbs becoming cake before being sliced up.
Yves Tumor’s Gospel For A New Century is a claustrophobic pop masterpiece. Though the opening that precedes the gleaming guitars could fit comfortably on Madvillainy, the wacky vocals feel reminiscent of an off-kilter Andre 3000 verse before they explode into a glorious glam rock storm.
Gospel For A New Century is a riotous embrace of an all or nothing approach to modern romance.
Mac Miller’s Circles feels like a final goodbye to one of music’s most beloved artists. His conversational tone and vulnerable vernacular resonated with listeners across the genre divide and it felt like he was on the verge of reaching an important landmark in his sound before his untimely passing.
Released at the very beginning of the year, ‘Good News’ is the end credits to a career cut short. There’s an air of acceptance in the soft tone of his voice contrasted by the meandering words throughout.
Celebrated for his openness about his battles with his inner demons, Mac sings “So tired of being so tired,” before questioning “Why I gotta build something beautiful just to set it on fire?”
Headie One’s GANG mixtape flew under the radar in relative terms, especially given the calibre of artists featured on the project.
Hosting Sampha, FKA Twigs and production from Fred Again, it highlighted the versatility of the ‘King Of Drill’s musical repertoire. The most adventurous track on the tape enlisted none other than Jamie XX for a thumping cut that saw Headie ride metallic and industrial production for the guts of four minutes.
Sounding like future-Britney pop meets The Neptunes, Rina Sawayma’s ‘XS’ is the kind of jump of the table hit that will surely survive the pandemic and make its way to bars and clubs next year.
Somehow snubbed for both The GRAMMYs and The Mercury Prize this year, Rina’s SAWAYAMA is one of 2020’s stand out albums and ‘XS’ is the most infectious track of the 13 track offering.
James Blake has become the darling of hip hop in recent years. Having emerged from firmly dubby and electronic beginnings, the English multi-instrumentalist has gone on to work with Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar and slowthai in recent years.
In an interview with NME earlier this year, Erick Ark Elliott of Flatbush Zombies confirmed that the group had an album in the works that was largely produced by James Blake.
The first track to result from their time spent collaborating was ‘Afterlife’. It’s the brooding synthesis of Blake’s haunting vocal style and the Zombies’ excessive and often morbid style. It also features one of the best music videos of the year.
Queen of quarantine, Charli XCX recorded an album in its entirety in the first six weeks of lockdown and released it shortly after. She leaned into the jarring uncertainty of the world and performed at a minecraft livestream hosted by 100 Gecs and also invited contributions from fans across the world.
It resulted in an album glued together by shared experience in a time where we needed it most. The most emotive of the songs shared – ‘Forever’ calls upon a compelling synthetic arrangement to bolster the beautiful hyper-pop vocals that celebrate love in a vacuum.
Megan Thee Stallion rise in 2020 was nothing short of astonishing. Putting the cherry on top of a bumper year with the release of her star-studded debut album Good News, the break out star defied the odds in a difficult year.
The original release of Savage was the impetus for Megan’s glow up and when it felt like the track couldn’t get any more unavoidable, Beyoncé hopped on board for the remix. Spitting an entirely new verse Meg linked up with her fellow Houston native for a cut that nodded towards 2020’s cultural touchstones such as TikTok, OnlyFans and B’s mum…?
Beyoncé’s mother responded to being name-dropped in the anthem saying “That was really, really cute. People started texting me [saying,] ‘Ok, savage,’ and I was like, ‘What are they talking about? It’s funny, when I was young, I used to drive a convertible and I used to drive up to Beyoncé’s school and she would say, ‘Mama, you are a hot mama. It fills my heart [and] it’s beautiful. I must’ve done something right, right?”
Frequent slowthai collaborator Kwes Darko linked up with two of the UK’s most exciting newcomers in SL and Pa Salieu for a bone-shattering ode to unforgiving inner-city environments.
Shrowded in mystery and yet to reveal his face, SL provided a hypnotic and foreboding hook over Kwes’ coercive instrumental before Pa Salieu sliced through with his unmistakable cadence and explosive delivery.
‘Hit The Block’ is a relentless cut that gives a glimpse at the future of rap, with Darko’s work providing the perfect battle ground for SL and Pa to cement their formidable tag team status.
‘Hit The Block’ is the most compelling trifecta of 2020.
Listen to all the tracks on our Top 50 Tracks of 2020 playlist below: