Here’s a constant refrain that sits atop a lot of these Year End lists: 2020 sucked worse than your relatives’ political views, but the music, of course, was really quite stellar. And whether that was a result of us not being able to go out and be distracted, instead plugging into Spotify or home turntables and allowing ourselves to truly connect with and discover music, is a column for another day. But the artistry of 2020 was overwhelming, and what follows below are 20 standout tracks in a year when 200 could make this list. The year overflowed with new talent making names for themselves — Korine, Oceanator, KennyHoopla, Seraphina Simone, Katie Wood, keaton dekker, etc. — and familiars like The Killers, Doves, and Gorillaz upped their game simply to keep up. We always say that music makes the world better, and we just don’t know where we would be in this dastardly 2020 if we weren’t able to plug in our earbuds and let the ills of the world take a backseat, if only momentarily. Below are Vanyaland’s 20 favorite national tracks of 2020, a reflection of all the ace tunes we covered while trying, with varying degrees of success, to keep sane.
Currently the greatest band without letters in their moniker, 0171 are spelling out a futuristic take on pop music. The London electronic duo dropped a seismic earworm of a single called “Photograph” back in July, and it set the tone for their Change Nothing EP that followed a month later. “Born out of frustration, the new EP explores feelings of stasis, the struggle between clinging on to what brings you down, and ultimately just letting go,” is how the EP was billed, and it resonated. But what makes the pop confectionery of producers/singers Joe Bedell-Brill and Georgie Hoare really connect is the chemistry between them and just how vibrant everything sounds coming out of the speakers. It feels timeless, both from another era and entirely 2020, and no song grabbed hold quite like “Photograph.”
Actors, ‘Love U More’
Darkwave, post-punk, and all the other shadowy sounds that swirl around the corners of subculture are certainly having a moment in 2020, and Vancouver’s ACTORS elevated to the top of hearts, minds, and playlists with October’s wonderfully moody “Love U More.” Its melancholic yet upbeat synth strains recall the best of classic Camouflage and B-Movie tracks, and there’s a cinematic glow to its delivery, offering a sense of urgency with the type of detached cool that has all the time in the world. Its slick polish comes from within, as the track was produced, mixed, and mastered by ACTORS ringleader Jason Corbet at his own Jacknife Sound studio in British Columbia. “Love U More” is tapped for ACTORS’ forthcoming 2021 album Acts of Worship — another stellar Artoffact Records release, to be sure — and its poised as a beacon of light in darkwave’s continued elevation.
Bartees Strange, ‘Mustang’
Bartees Strange is one of the true breakout artists of 2020, a genre-flipping talent raised out of Oklahoma and based in D.C. who captured acclaim and accolades from nearly every corner of the music world. Years from now we’ll all be telling tales of which specific song pulled you into his world without letting go, and for us it was July’s explosive “Mustang.” The incendiary track pulls its name from Strange’s hometown, but it’s easy to get lost in all the muscle car and wild horse imagery as it races along its four minute runtime. “Mustang” is a massive song that explodes early on and never lets up, with the raw emotion of hardcore intertwined tightly with the grand ambition of British indie. There might be 10 different publications selecting 10 different Bartees Strange songs for this kind of year-end glow-up, all from October debut album Live Forever, and none of them would be wrong.
Bob Vylan, ‘We Live Here’
Back in March, Bob Dylan released a new song, about 17 fucking minutes long, about the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. Around the same time, London’s Bob Vylan (pronounced “Villain”) dropped a tune of their own, a 131-second rocket of raw frustrated fury that puts England’s racist trash on blast. Guess which holds up? Bob Vylan’s “We Live Here” is a confrontational clenched fist of a “fuck you” to bigots called “We Live Here”, and stands tall as one of the most visceral and powerful things we’ve heard in 2020. The grime-punk track features heavy riffage and a speedball of hardcore, metal, and rap that serves to catapult instantly memorable bars like this: “Neighbors called me n***** / Told me to go back to my own country / Said since we arrived this place has got so ugly / But this is my fucking country / And it’s never been fucking lovely.” This is England.
Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion, ‘WAP’
What other song released this year sent listeners straight to Genius to make sure what they thought they heard blasting from the glossy lips of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion was what they actually just heard? “WAP” ruled 2020 on its sheer quotability — “Bring a bucket and a mop”… “Macaroni in a pot”… “Gobble me, swallow me, drip down the side of me” — but the bass heavy trap beat and looped vocal sample from Baltimore club and house legend DJ Frank Ski’s “Whores In The House” made this raunchy collab catchier than Julian Edelman in his prime. A straight banger where women dominate sexual escapades, it also boasted maybe music’s finest hour in 2020 as Cardi B dropped this insanity: “I don’t wanna spit, I wanna gulp / I wanna gag, I wanna choke / I want you to touch that lil’ dangly thing that swing in the back of my throat.” That’s called a uvula, for those who hit Google right after Genius.
Control Top, ‘One Good Day’
Philadelphia is currently boasting one hell of a synth-pop scene, but Pennsylvania’s only good city still knows how to punch the throttle on rock and roll. As the uncertainty of the coronavirus crept into our lives back in March, power trio Control Top launched one furious jam in “One Good Day,” a searing call-to-reflection that vocalist/bassist Ali Carter says is about “facing your flaws to become a better person.” It was the first jolt of new music from Control Top since the release of last year’s debut album Covert Contracts, and it immediately jumped out of the speakers as one of the most fiery new tracks of 2020. When Carter belts out “You’re not the only one with problems / We’re all fighting for one good day / Just tell me something positive / I don’t care if it’s cliche” over a torrent guitar-rock fury, we can’t help but assume that approach in all our online interactions and the increasingly-limited IRL experiences we have with those physically around us.
It feels like a million years ago by now, but in November 2018 Doves first revealed plans for a reformation, ending a hiatus that began way back in 2010, the year after they released fourth and last studio album, Kingdom of Rust. The celebrated English alt-rock band spent parts of 2019 playing live shows, in full-on reunion mode, with the tease of new music set to follow… at some point. Remarkably, that point arrived in June, when Doves released “Carousels.” It instantly captured that classic Doves feel, with a vibe somewhere between 2002’s The Last Broadcast and 2005’s Some Cities. “A reminiscence of times we’d go to places like North Wales on holiday as kids,” Doves write about the track. “Places where you had your first experience of sound systems and music being played really loud.” Turns out, we needed that classic Doves haze now more than ever.
Gorillaz feat. Peter Hook and Georgia, ‘Aries’
Gorillaz year-long Song Machine series, where the animated British group collaborated on tracks with the likes of Beck and Robert Smith, all packaged as “episodes” with a visual component that made the whole thing feel like a television series, was a true highlight of 2020. And it reached no greater height than April’s “Aries,” which featured London electronic-pop musician Georgia and former Joy Division/New Order bassist and all-around legend Peter Hook. What we have on “Aries,” essentially, is Georgia on drums, Hooky on bass, and Damon Albarn (2-D, of course) on vocals — and that’s quite the combination. The melancholic “Aries” sounds like something from New Order’s Low-life era, but in an alternative universe where the only truth lies in Hooky’s brilliant bass lines. His wonderful touch here is unmistakable — high tide, indeed.
Hinds, ‘Good Bad Times’
This shit year 2020 messed with no band more than Hinds. The Madrid guitar-pop quartet released a career-defining record in The Prettiest Curse in June, delayed a few months due to COVID-19. And their grand world tour behind the record was entirely scrapped. And that sucks, because HINDS bringing these wonderful songs to the masses would have elevated their profile considerably. The album’s standout, February’s “Good Bad Times,” does a lot of the heavy lifting anyway; it’s a glossy, warm alt-pop tune that recalls Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” and shows a bit more of an electronic-pop side of the group that added a new depth to their sound. It’s glossy, campy goodness from an otherwise desperate situation, and its shine will last long after the ills of the world fade away. Maybe in 2021 Hinds will finally get their due.
Inhaler, ‘We Have To Move On’
Twenty-two days into 2020, Inhaler dropped a gauntlet of a tune and never looked back. The Irish alt-rock band, led by Bono’s son, frontman Elijah Hewson, kickstarted the year with “We Have To Move On,” an ejaculating post-punk-fueled guitar-rock bliss explosion that recalls the early glory days of Editors and positioned the band away from the inevitable U2 comparisons. Additional tracks Inhaler would release this year steered closer to the family lineage, but “We Have To Move On” respects the bloodline without completely lifting it, and the track showed Inhaler had some chops of their own merit. Much like Hinds above them, COVID-19 scrapped grand plans for an extensive world tour, and that certainly helped prevent the band from becoming a household name in 2020.
JEEN, ‘Anything You Want’
We’re facing a long cold New England winter ahead of us, and it’s easy to get discouraged about the early sunsets, frigid temperature drops, and inevitable whiteout blizzards that await. But a good lesson in rolling with the arctic punches arrived in September via “Anything You Want,” a warmly embracing new alt-pop single from JEEN that was conceived under a deep Canadian freeze. The songwriter teamed with bandmate Ian Blurton to produce the song during a Toronto blizzard, hunkering down in a basement without power until the track was perfected, and there’s a warm lush gravity at play here that belies its electronic-pop sheen, a motivational beat that dances across JEEN’s vocal pull that dips and rises with each emotion. You could almost sense the thrill glowing off the track as it nears its conclusion, and proves that pure heat cam emerge from the frostiest of conditions.
Katie Wood, ‘Uh Huh Yeah’
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, agoraphobia is defined as “an anxiety disorder that involves intense fear and anxiety of any place or situation where escape might be difficult,” and involves “avoidance of situations such as being alone outside of the home; traveling in a car, bus, or airplane; or being in a crowded area.” It’s also the source of inspiration for Katie Wood‘s vivid June alt-pop cruiser “Uh Huh Yeah.” The rising London-based talent channeled feelings of frustration, anger, and resentment into this sterling self-produced single, taking the lush ’80s modern rock vibes of Kate Bush and Echo & The Bunnymen and modernizes them into something inherently 2020, where the sparkle and glow of pop music is crystal in its delivery and decorated by real-life issues facing our daily efforts to simply see another day. “I couldn’t face leaving my flat, let alone go to work or see my friends and I just felt so powerless,” Wood said over the summer. “So the song is about that feeling and in many ways accepting it as a way to move on through it, I do believe that you have to face your fears to overcome them.”
keaton dekker, ‘ITYK’
September’s the unwelcome series displayed keaton dekker as a true artist in bloom, but it was around Fourth of July when we first fell for the rising 20-year-old East London-based visual artist, producer, festival curator, DIY disciple, and model. That’s when he dropped a sugar rush of R&B-pop bliss called “ITYK”. At the time it was only the second single from dekker — lower-case moniker presentation preferred despite the capital-letter Music — but served as a commanding turn with ’80s callbacks, fuzzy instrumentation, and a modern-day bedroom-pop approach of listening to the music just waiting to emerge from deep within. “I made ‘ITYK’ in my room whilst honestly wanting to be dancing by the tide at sunset,” dekker says. “I wanted to create pure warmth with sound, like when sun rays hit the surface of your face. The song addresses miscommunication, and how it can create a huge misjudgment of character. The twists and turns of being in a friendship that isn’t 100% open and honest.” This song ended up being quite the opposite.
KennyHoopla, ‘How Will I Rest In Peace If I’m Buried By A Highway’
Much like Bartees Strange several graphs higher up, KennyHoopla not only dominated indie rock, but added some much-needed diversity to the genre. The Cleveland-born, Oshkosh-based artist and musician born Kenneth La’Ron exploded onto the scene in February with an absolute banger in “How Will I Rest In Peace If I’m Buried By a Highway?” The driving track is a raging guitar-rock ripper that wouldn’t be out of place at the indie dance parties of a decade ago mixed in between Bloc Party’s “Banquet” and The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers.” In fact, when you’re done reading this, go line up those three tracks in a row on Spotify with KennyHoopla in the sweet middle slot and go run through some fucking walls.
The Killers, ‘My Own Soul’s Warning’
If you had respectable comebacks by The Killers and The Strokes on your 2020 aging scenester bingo card, you might have won tickets to the Just Like Heaven Festival. Both bands released solid albums this year, and we’re not sure which was more unexpected. The Killers, now deemed to be nothing more than a glorified Brandon Flowers solo project, dropped Imploding The Mirage in August after a COVID-19 delay, and the single rollout went like this: The respectable “Caution” in March; the god-awful “Bone In Fire” in April; and the towering, awe-inspiring “My Own Soul’s Warning” in June. The third of four LP singles (we don’t even remember August’s “Dying Breed”), the energized “My Own Soul’s Warning” recaptured that Killers magic, coming off like B-Flo fronting The War on Drugs, and holding up as the best Killers cut in more than a decade. Few saw this coming.
Korine, ‘Fate’ / ‘Cast’
Philadelphia electronic-pop duo Korine were faced with a monumental task: To follow up their masterful 2018 debut album New Arrangements, which has already wildly influenced the intertwined worlds of darkwave, post-punk, and synth-pop. But there was no sophomore slump for Morgy Ramone and Trey Frey, unleashing the majestic The Night We Raise in September and offering up a string of enchanting singles, including a pair of Song of the Year contenders in “Fate” and “Cast.” We’re cheating here by listing both, but we could easily list any of the tracks from the LP (“For Sure”, “The Last”), which oozes with the type of emotive bliss and open-diary lyricisms that position Korine as modern-day icons in the new retro movement. There’s something so special building in the dark-but-glittery world of Korine; the duo’s captivating music feels definitive of the era, their fans are borderline obsessive, and even their livestreams (with the finale arriving December 26) feel like full-blown IRL concert experiences. 2020 was absolute garbage, but Korine made the year better for a whole lot of people.
Meg Myers, ‘Any Way You Wanna Love’
We’ve long been pretty sweet on Meg Myers, and were thrilled to see her rousing cover of Kate Bush’s 1985 modern rock classic “Running Up That Hill” give the Los Angeles singer-songwriter the glow-up she deserves. In September, Myers followed up her cover with a riveting track of her own in “Any Way You Wanna Love,” an anthemic alt-pop jammer that we knew would end up on this list the first time we heard it. You can hear pieces of Bush that Myers carried forth with her, and there’s some Lady Gaga and Bonnie Tyler vibes swirling around this dramatic track. The emphatic “Any Way You Wanna Love” also marked the start of a new era for Myers, as last month she unveiled a pair of companion EPs, Thank U 4 Taking Me To 2 The Disco and I’d Like 2 Go Home Now. To those unfamiliar with Myers before her breakout cover: Welcome to the Meg show.
Oceanator, ‘A Crack in the World’
There is just so much pure guitar-pop and songwriting goodness on Oceanator’s late-August album Things I Never Said (“Hide Away”, “Heartbeat”), but we’re gonna take it back to what first captured our attention over mid-summer — June’s “A Crack In The World.” The project of New York songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Elise Okusami caught immediate notice with this personable, fuzzed-out track, which lends itself to repeated listens without ever overstaying its welcome. And it carries some of the most relatable lyrics of 2020 as we all tried to stay positive and appreciate the little things at a time when the big things are overwhelming. First Okusami sings “It’s not what you wanted / But it’ll do” before dropping a gauntlet as the tracks slows to its heavy conclusion: “And I’m still trying my best, you know it keeps getting harder and harder every day / When you see the news on the TV, on the radio, but I’ll be trying to keep the skies blue anyway.” It’s a crushing finale from an artist just getting started.
Seraphina Simone, ‘Hollywood $$$’
Back in August, Seraphina Simone took us for a spin around Hollywood through her own perceptive lens. And the London-based musician and artist certainly has a view worth sharing — the daughter of Sananda Maitreya (formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby) counts Pamela Des Barres as a babysitter when she was younger, and lists Prince, Miles Davis, Christie Hynde, and Pete Townsend as her godparents. That alone is worthy of attention, but so is her sophomore single, a confident alt-R&B and electronic-pop thumper, propped by some wonderful lyrical wordplay, called “Hollywood $$$.” It’s all about the predatory darkness under all the glitz and the glamour. “’Hollywood $$$’ is about the Lynchian, fame-obsessive undercurrents of tinsel town, with its sirens, starlets, leeches & letches,” Simone says. “It’s about that world of smoke and mirrors — where nothing and no one is really as it seems, and the world of celebrity — where we deify or demonize people into these superhumans or arch villains.” Simone feels like just the opposite, and her authenticity should bode well for future success.
The 1975, ‘Me & You Together Song’
This year was full of surprises, and maybe none greater in music than The 1975 dropping a kaleidoscopic modern rock bop back in mid-January that’s still stuck in our damn heads. And we knew it right then and there on release day. Here’s what we wrote way back when: “Well, we’re 16 days into 2020, and we have our first great new song of the year, and something that we can envision slotting into our Best Of lists 11.5 months from now. It comes from The 1975, it’s called ‘Me & You Together Song”, and it steers the British band into jangle-pop and modern rock territory with absolutely dazzling results. It even teeters on the brink of shoegaze without ever falling off completely into the noise void.” The pitch-perfect jam slotted nicely on the band’s Notes On A Conditional Form album, but nothing grabbed us quite like this.