Now that the finish line of 2020 is in sight, at RouteNote we’re looking back over this endless year and pulling together some of the highlights from the music world. Here’s a selection of the best songs from the past 12 months.
In this year of turmoil and activism, music has been constant throughout, pulling us along, a distraction and a comfort. Songs that were never meant to reference the year have hit a new nerve, and music written in response to current events made us feel less overwhelmed. Across the genres, here are some of the most popular and intriguing music releases we heard in 2020.
Yazmin Lacey – Morning Matters
Lacey’s hazy vocal is backed by Ezra Collective’s drummer Femi Koleoso and the smooth jazzy horn of trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi. Soulful lines to help push us out of bed in the morning, ‘even when it’s miserable’, to face whatever’s going on out in the world with a wry smile.
Run the Jewels – Ooh La La
El-P and Killer Mike lewdly rap about the unequal distribution of wealth, and imagine a future with no money-lines drawn in the sand. Lyrics are spat out about lying in the dirt, looking up and preferring it to the grimy, moneyed corruption up above: ‘I used to love Bruce/But living my vida loca/Helped me understand I’m probably more of a Joker.’
The Weeknd – Blinding Lights
The catchiest song of the year, ‘Blinding Lights’ is an exuberant synth-pop track with a relentless rushing beat. It’s currently been streamed 1.8 billion times on Spotify.
Beyoncé – Black Parade
Dropped on Juneteenth, the US holiday marking the end of slavery, this surprise release saw Bey opening her arms, gathering her people into her ‘hive’, and then ushering them out onto the streets. ‘Being black is your activism’, she posted alongside, stating that money raised would be donated to Black-owned businesses. With a call to Black self-expressionism, African references are peppered throughout, over a cyclical beat.
beabadoobee – Charlie Brown
beabadoobee channels her emotions through a new kind of grunge. Opening with chunky guitar and a sweet vocal line, a smart shift of dynamics and the simple, stomping chorus of ‘Charlie Brown’ rushes in, all cymbals and caterwauling. Bedroom pop mixed with new-emo through a ‘90s movie soundtrack, the lyrics reference mental health struggles without wallowing in sadness.
Kokoroko – Carry Me Home
Mixing Nigerian rhythms with jazz. The track ripples along at a pace but also lays back on the beat, the bassline and drums popping whilst simple harmonised vocals and trumpet line float dreamily atop.
Yves Tumor – Gospel for A New Century
Enigmatic performer Yves Tumor slides through genres on this, the title track of their fourth album. There’s a great use of space in this track – snatches of silence before the next drop of drawling vocal over heavy brass and growling bass.
Slowthai – nhs
In a year that has seen the NHS needed in the UK like never before, Slowthai casts a critical eye over British society in this track, calling for empathy over gentle piano phrases. ‘It took a disaster to make people appreciate the NHS,’ the rapper said. ‘Clapping, how is that helping anyone?’ His second album TYRON will be released in February 2021.
SAULT – Wildfires
Defiant neo-soul from the anonymous collective. ‘Take off your badge,’ the vocal urges crooked police officers, ‘We all know it was murder’. The track stares down the ghouls of corruption with a steady gaze, stating ‘we will never show fear’ through a memorable melody.
Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion – WAP
The female rapper renaissance continues and combining the talent of two idols equals viral perfection. There’s no room for doubt here – it’s a defining moment for Black female empowerment as the two heavyweights join forces, laying out exactly what they want, with no need to offer an explanation as to why they deserve it.
Arlo Parks – Hurt
Over the lurking burr of saxophone and a chomping drumbeat, the calm vocal addresses the character of Charlie in the song and also the listener, beckoning out hope. A deft storyteller, you can hear the poetry in Parks’ songs. A debut album is due to be released in 2021.
24KGoldn – Mood feat. Iann Dior
A cheery, harmless pop-rap earworm, the TikTok success story topped the UK and Billboard charts for weeks. Simple, well-produced and effortlessly catchy, it was just what the public wanted to hear.
Roísín Murphy – Murphy’s Law
The Irish singer tells a wry tale of the law of sod in this strutting disco-funk track. An unexpected earworm, too.
Megan Thee Stallion feat. Beyoncé – Savage Remix
In defiance of any haters who might try to pit them against each other, the remix of Stallion’s 2019 hit sees the pair unite effortlessly, shouting out themselves. Beyoncé’s verses are straight in with fiery self-love, playfully referencing the original song’s massive TikTok success as Stallion’s trademark ‘Ah!’s back her up. Two Houston women leading the pack with a shrugged ‘so what?’.
Cakes Da Killa x Proper Villains – Don Dada
Azaelia Banks vibes here, but made their own from a creative rapper who’s been on the rise for years. Cakes raps feverishly over a bouncing beat, a pulsing ball of energy.
Joel Corry x MNEK – Head & Heart
As close to a song of the summer we were going to get in 2020. Joyfully, stubbornly upbeat in what often felt like a grey year.