2020 has been an undeniable trainwreck of a year. In spite of that — or, perhaps, because of it — we’ve been blessed with a host of great music. Staff writer Sam Crocker’s picks for the year’s most relevant song releases reflect the universal feelings of isolation, melancholy, angst, and existential dread that have defined the past year, with some silver linings peppered in.
‘TRAP PHONE’ — BERWYN
BERWYN is one of several explosive newcomers in the rap scene this year. A Trinidadian-British rapper and spoken-word artist, his debut mixtape “DEMOTAPE/VEGA” (released Sept. 25) is an intimate portrait of a community as well as heartache. “TRAP PHONE,” the mixtape’s highlight, is a song about an intense depression brought on by street violence, with heart-wrenching lyrics such as, “Out here, man, when it rains, it pours / It leaves puddles on floors / It leaves mothers distraught.”
‘Tip Toe’ — Sheff G & Sleepy Hallow
Another powerful moment in hip-hop was “Tip Toe,” a fiery, carefree banger by rising trap stars Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow. The song was released Aug. 12 as a non-album single, and it finds the two artists putting on a rap clinic as they trade bars in what feels like a we came, we saw, and now we’re conquering-type moment. “Tip Toe” samples the classic, meme-prone Tiny Tim song “Tip Toe Thru’ the Tulips with Me.”
‘Out On Bail’ — YG
West coast hip-hop veteran YG put out one of the better rap albums of the year: “My Life 4Hunnid” (Oct. 2). The album’s single “Out On Bail” is a biting track about institutionalized violence against Black people. The song reminisces on the legacy of the late Nipsey Hussle and sonically draws from a long history of West Coast G-funk.
‘Grasshopper’ — Tkay Maidza
Australian singer Tkay Maidza released a new EP on Aug. 7 with the standout track “Grasshopper,” a noisy take on pop-rap with industrial synths and cold-blooded flows. Maidza is a uniquely versatile new artist with a gorgeous, soulful voice and equally impressive rapping skills.
“TRRST’ — IC3PEAK ft. ZillaKami
More abrasive forms of music also blossomed in 2020, taking inspiration from the social unrest and angst of living through a pandemic. Russian duo IC3PEAK released their witch house single “TRRST” in April, a genre of music that is noisy and occult-adjacent that combines elements of trap, drone, industrial, and shoegaze. “TRRST” is a harrowing trap song whose bone-chilling, shrieked refrain of “Momma, they say I’m a terrorist / I did nothing wrong but I got on their blacklist” will gnaw its way into your mind.
‘CRACK’ — 1 800 PAIN
Noise rap band 1 800 PAIN put out their nearly flawless debut album “BEST HOUSE ON A BAD BLOCK” (Sept. 11) — the band’s song “CRACK” is like something by BROCKHAMPTON turned demented and deranged. It combines sounds from R&B, rap, and metal with loud electronics, and comes together in the form of one of the most original and exciting musical experiments of this year.
‘True Opera’ — Moor Jewelry
“True Opera,” the title track from noise rock band Moor Jewelry’s new album (released April 20), is paranoid and frenetic poetry put to deafening guitar riffs. The song features poet-rapper Moor Mother teaming up with noise producer Mental Jewelry to create a visceral, provocative experience. “True Opera” has the makings of a noise rock classic, from the massive walls of guitar distortion to the use of white noise to the energetic punk spirit.
‘Nothing at All’ — Perfume Genius
2020 has also been a year of beautifully sad music. Perfume Genius’ chamber pop/indie album “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately” (May 15) is chock-full of lavish tearjerkers, my favorite of which being the scuzzy, guitar-backed “Nothing at All,” a meditation on emptiness and emotional baggage.
‘I Know The End’ — Phoebe Bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers’ single “I Know The End,” released with her album “Punisher” (June 18), is a song about death and depression and The End of Days that perfectly soundtracks the apocalyptic nature of 2020. Phoebe’s lyrics — “A haunted house with a picket fence / To float around and ghost my friends / No, I’m not afraid to disappear / The billboard said the end is near” — will haunt and sadden you at the same time.
‘Is There Something in the Movies?’ — Samia
Indie songstress Samia released her gleaming debut album “The Baby” Aug. 28. The single “Is There Something in the Movies?” rivals Phoebe Bridgers’ music when you need a song to wallow in complete despair and loneliness. Samia’s incredible voice, introspective songwriting, and mastery of multiple genres make her one of the most compelling fresh faces in the indie scene.
‘Boomer’ — Bartees Strange
There have been bright spots amidst the sadness this year — like indie rocker Bartees Strange’s song “Boomer,” released as a single Aug. 12, an upbeat song about growing up and moving on that will help you dance away a little anxiety. Lyrics like “Told my girl that I was working, that’s a lie I’m in the trap / Told my momma I was saving, I spent that shit on wax” are both funny and touchingly earnest.
‘Psychic’ — serpentwithfeet
“Psychic,” the best track on experimental artist serpentwithfeet’s “Apparition” EP in April, is a gorgeous and mystifying artpop song that’s literally about falling in love with the psychic reading your fortune. The sonics of the song are trippy and expansive; it sounds otherworldly in the most enchanting of ways, like an alternate reality that we all wish we were living in instead of 2020.
‘HARLOW’ — Hanni El Khatib
Palestinian-Filipino blues-rock star Hanni El Khatib released his wild new album “FLIGHT” in May, and it helped keep me entertained for months in quarantine. Nearly every song switches genre, from electronic to punk to pop. My favorite, however, is “HARLOW,” a tried-and-true folk-blues song dedicated to Khatib’s dog Harlow that will make you smile wide.
‘I Walk Alone with Acid’ — Pale Blue
In April, house duo Pale Blue released “I Walk Alone with Acid,” a terrifying and piercing electronic song that reckons with deep-rooted trauma and anxiety. It’s not an easy listen, but is an affecting one, and reflects the turmoil and unease that we’ve come to associate with 2020. It won’t make anyone feel better, but it hopefully can help some people process intense emotions and begin to heal.