Every day in our Listen Up section, we share our favorite new tunes and, while our collective taste in music is varied and vast, every song we share makes us feel something—whether it’s joyful, heartbreaking, provocative or revolutionary. The artists we highlighted this year (like years previous) are of all ages, genders, races, nationalities and backgrounds—and their diverse music styles are often beyond categorization. But 2020 certainly saw an uptick in powerful music centered on resilience, rebellion, hope and joy. Whether a spirited protest song, an ebullient disco banger or an intoxicating ballad, here are our favorites from the year that was 2020.
Jessie Ware: Spotlight
Lush, hypnotic, dramatic and drenched in disco glitter, Jessie Ware’s “Spotlight” is everything one could ask for in a club-ready tune. From her upcoming fourth LP What’s Your Pleasure? (the follow up to 2017’s Glasshouse), the song was co-written with Danny Parker, Shungudzo Kuyimba and Arctic Monkeys producer James Ford and seems to confirm the English singer/songwriter’s position as a nu-disco diva. The video—which was filmed in Belgrade on former Yugoslavian president/dictator Josip Broz Tito’s luxurious Blue Train—starts off subdued and moody and ends with a traditional, rambunctious Serbian wedding filled with dancing, confetti and a Balkan brass band. What’s Your Pleasure? is set for release in June, includes last year’s luscious “Adore You” and features work from Kindness, Metronomy’s Joseph Mount and others.
Mykki Blanco: Patriarchy Aint The End of Me
In Mykki Blanco’s theatric two-minute track “Patriarchy Aint The End of Me,” the queer rapper tells a tale of defiance atop a dramatic soundscape. Produced by FaltyDL, the song incorporates backing vocals by Mykal Kilgore, L1ZY and Leah King. Blanco shared in a statement that the song was “written as if it were a scene from a musical with radical feminist strippers.” With its narrative declarations falling on light drums and relaxed strings, it’s easy to imagine it all.
serpentwithfeet: A Comma
Released via Adult Swim Singles, the stunning “A Comma” by serpentwithfeet (aka Josiah Wise) marks the wildly talented musician’s return, and the announcement of Apparition—his EP due in April. For the album, which was entirely produced by Wynne Bennett, Wise says he asked himself the question: “What ghosts am I welcoming into my house?” From that contemplative (and slightly ominous) theme comes “A Comma,” which is dramatic, dreamy, haunting and cinematic—much like the artist’s previous sublime works. The song, while wistful, is viscerally hopeful—perhaps pleadingly so.
Khruangbin: Time (You and I)
“Time (You and I),” the first single from funk three-piece Khruangbin’s forthcoming album, Mordechai (out 26 June on Dead Oceans), expands upon the band’s signature sound by adding more substantial vocals, and leaning into their glittery disco influences. Recorded at the band’s studio estate in Burton, Texas, the funk-laden song features a chant-like chorus: “That’s life / we had more time / we could live forever / just you and I / we could be together / just you and I.”
The Avalanches feat. The International Space Orchestra: Wherever You Go
A live rendition recorded remotely, “Wherever You Go” by The Avalanches features CLYPSO and The International Space Orchestra, who emphasize the intergalactic aura of the single. Some 40 members of ISO (who are also scientists, astronauts and engineers from the SETI Institute and NASA) perform alongside the other musicians—who all don custom uniforms, many appearing in front of DIY space-themed backdrops. This extended rework of the song has been tweaked to include bubble-blowing, strums on an euphonium, the delicate twinkles of a harp and more. The album version of the song (which features Neneh Cherry, CLYPSO and Jamie xx) appears on the Australian outfit’s third album, We Will Always Love You.
Ana Roxanne: Suite pour l’invisible
From LA-based ambient musician Ana Roxanne’s Because of a Flower (out 13 November) comes the lush and languid “Suite pour l’invisible.” With sparse and delicate vocals, the tranquil tune is the first from the album, which centers on “gender identity, beauty and cruelty.” Themes and sounds informed by “the experience of identifying as intersex” (which Roxanne publicly imparted last year) permeate the entire record, with the “flower” in its title referring to the body. Truly stirring, “Suite pour l’invisible” delicately glides across seven sublime minutes.
Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple returns with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, her first album since 2012’s The Idler Wheel. 13 powerful, percussive tracks coalesce around Apple’s pliant, emotion-baring alto. The title track, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” carries much of the album’s lyrical urgency. Apple punctuates the work with a meticulous smattering of personal, DIY sounds—through to its satisfying canine conclusion. It’s a standout song, but so are the other 12.
Gordon Koang + Ginoli: Mal Mi Goa (Ginoli Remix)
Part of the Music In Exile project—an artist-driven initiative that offers space and resources to “artists working in culturally or linguistically diverse communities in Australia”—comes “Mal Mi Gao (Ginoli Remix).” By South Sudanese-born, Melbourne, Australia-based vocalist and instrumentalist Gordon Koang—who busked his way to local fame—and producer Ginoli (aka James Ireland), the song is an upbeat, danceable bop. Since arriving in Australia, Koang has worked with a variety of producers to search for “a new sound to pay tribute to his adopted home” and this tune fuses Sudanese funk with synth-heavy, psychedelic-inflected touches—all carried by Koang’s ebullient vocals.
Just three months after releasing the powerful Untitled (Black Is), UK collective SAULT returns with their second album of 2020, Untitled (Rise). This new record imparts a more exuberant sound through upbeat disco, funk and even house elements, but the topics remain just as poignant—exploring race, resilience and rebellion. A standout from the album, “Free” begins with classic boom-bap, a super-funky bass line and a little distortion, before unfolding into a soaring, soulful and exhilarating five-minute ode to independence.
Geographer: Slave To The Rhythm
“I think this song is about being an artist, a creator of consumable emotions, a performer,” Geographer (aka Mike Deni) says to us of “Slave To The Rhythm,” the spellbinding lead track off the celestial synth-pop musician’s upcoming LP, Down And Out In The Garden Of Earthly Delights (out 4 December). Deni recorded the track, a warm wave of emotion and instrumentation, in Tiny Telephone’s B room in San Francisco. He adds, “Perhaps ironically, I decided with this one to not cater to the traditional pop song structure, I guess kind of in opposition to the outcry of the song. I stretched it as far as I could, the vocal chopping section with the saxophones. Recording it was deeply satisfying.” Mirroring that, the experience of listening satisfies, too.
The Strokes: At The Door
In addition to confirming the release date of their Rick Rubin-produced sixth LP, The New Abnormal (10 April), The Strokes dropped the album’s epic lead single, “At The Door.” Arguably one of their most dynamic tracks, the near-six-minute number transitions from precise, minimal synth work to busier, beautiful Strokes-soundscapes; all of this is tied together with an eerie outro. Lead singer Julian Casablancas demonstrates the breadth of his vocal capabilities throughout. An animated official music video from writer/director Mike Burkaroff amplifies the tone of the track with sci-fi references and a nod to the ’80s cartoon Masters of The Universe.
Katia + Marielle Labèque: Paul is dying (by Philip Glass)
Legendary French sibling pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque breathe life into the stunning Philip Glass composition “Paul is dying (Part 1).” It’s the first synchronous taste of the duo’s highly anticipated album with Glass, Les enfants terribles (out 23 October). The release comes complete with a thoughtful video directed Ronan Day-Lewis, which extrapolates and embraces moments both human and elemental, and stars Lena Christakis and Rocco Rinaldi-Rose.
Steve Arrington: The Joys of Love
Prolific funk legend Steve Arrington says his enchanting new tune, “The Joys of Love,” is a “trust me song.” He explains to Stones Throw, it’s “a song of fun when it all goes right. A song of thanks for every day of life.” Produced by Mndsgn (aka Ringgo Ancheta) and Devin Morrison, it’s soulful, a little jazzy and tinged with ’70s funk and R&B—altogether it creates a laid-back and blissful listen.
Romy Madley-Croft of The xx offers her first-ever official solo material (under the moniker Romy) with the uplifting “Lifetime”—a song featuring her familiar silken vocals over soaring synths. Written during lockdown, it tells a story of togetherness. “I think subconsciously the upbeat energy of the song is a reaction to the stillness and anxiety I was feeling in lockdown. I was missing the pace of the outside world, spontaneous moments, the euphoria of dance floors, of love and connections with my friends and family. I realized when everything was stripped back, simple moments of togetherness, meant the most to me,” she explains in a statement. With elements of Eurodance and ’90s rave nostalgia, it’s a banger made for the dance floor—even if that’s at home for now.
Ab-Soul: Dangerookipawaa Freestyle
Released via Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), Ab-Soul’s newest track spotlights his lyrical prowess atop an ever-changing instrumental that is comprised of samples and splices of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam,” Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” and Ab-Soul and Zacari’s own “RAW.” Produced by Devin Williams, “Dangerookipawaa Freestyle” is the artist’s first solo track since 2016 and he returns to form with lyrics that mention TDE CEO Anthony “Top Dawg/Dangerookipawaa” Tiffith, Craig Mack, Michael Jordan, Eminem, the late Mac Miller, John Mayer and more.
Jonah Yano feat. Tatsuya Muraoka: shoes
Jonah Yano’s lo-fi “shoes” highlights an emotional rekindling with his father, Tatsuya Muraoka, who he hadn’t seen in 15 years. The accompanying video details Yano’s visit to Japan, how the pair occupied their days together and the uncanny resemblance between father and son. Originally recorded by Muraoka in Hiroshima in the ’90s, “shoes” was finished by Yano—he filled out the track’s instrumental and then laid down his vocal parts. “My dad’s Japanese lyrics are about a pair of shoes he bought me when I was a kid,” Yano explains. “My verses question his absence from my childhood and my general confusion about my circumstance, which was a fatherless upbringing in an entirely different country as a result of my parents’ separation.” The intensely personal single will appear on Yano’s forthcoming debut album, souvenir, out 19 June.
Haich Ber Na: By Floras
London-based recording artist Haich Ber Na explores a new sonic realm on “By Floras.” Glitchy and intergalactic yet delicate, the track mixes elements from Ber Na’s 2019 EP, Everywhere’s Home, but proves much more pop-oriented. The song incorporates many of the celestial elements he’d teased with previous releases, while lyrically he addresses an ever-growing distance between himself and a friend.
Juls + Sango: Angele Ni Fe
A fusion of Brazilian funk, Amapiano (South African house), Afrobeat and Latin-influenced rhythms, Juls and Sango’s collaborative track “Angele Ni Fe” marks the first release from Soulection Records this year. This song (alongside “Ritmo Coco”) appears on their joint EP, Fufu & Grits. Vocal and drum samples comprise the track’s foundation, while horns and deeper bass notes are blended in to form a danceable, upbeat tune.
Rostam: Unfold You
The birth of “Unfold You,” the beautiful new single from producer and vocalist Rostam, began with a voice memo that the former Vampire Weekend member made in Paris after listening to the music of Nick Hakim. Rostam continued to tinker with the song’s layers, writing enveloping saxophone parts along the way. To accompany the track’s release, Rostam directed a meditative music video, featuring the actress Hari Nef. “Hari and I found ourselves in the same quarantine pod in Massachusetts this past July,” he explains. “The video was shot on the Dune Shacks Trail during the last several days of the trip.”
Amber Mark: Thong Song (Sisqó Cover)
Sisqó’s 1999 campy hit “Thong Song” may be oft-disparaged, but it remains a masterstroke written by the then-19-year-old. NYC-based singer, songwriter and producer Amber Mark has just covered the track—and with relish. Mark (whose style pulls elements from countless genres, including R&B, dance, pop, bossa nova and beyond) says, “Yes, lol I covered ‘Thong Song.’ I HAD TO DO IT! I used to love this back in the day. So I figured how cool would it be to make a smooth house version of it. It originally started out as a little joke to myself and then I loved it too much not to put it out.” She has reworked the 20-year-old treasure into something just as extravagant, juicy and satisfying as any listener could hope for.
Hero image is Khruangbin’s Mordechai album cover art