Top 10 Beautiful Songs of 2020
Nobody had a good 2020, but if you want to know who had it really bad, talk to a working musician. Already squeezed to the limits by a combination of pernicious forces, artists had their primary revenue stream cut off at the knees this year. Unable to tour (and by extension, sell merch) it was an incredibly rough year to be someone who writes songs for a living.
In the midst of a compounding catastrophe, our balladeers and troubadours, producers, players and vocalists managed to pull another rabbit out of a bag many considered empty. 2020 has been responsible for some of the most sublime creations in recent memory. Our bodies and minds have suffered, but our souls emerge from the flames nourished. Music fans are so lucky.
Here are the most beautiful songs of the year. Some have unique moments, others are more of a feeling, but each stirred something deep within me, which is telling because I listen to so much music it’s frankly amazing I still have a job.
Where possible, links are to Bandcamp. These artists deserve your money and streaming so close to theft now it isn’t even funny.
Arlo Parks — Black Dog
Two days before I left London for good, I got the chance to sit and have a long conversation with Arlo Parks. Things were just starting to really happen for her and she was petrified of losing momentum as touring ground to a halt in April. It was serendipitous that her next single was slated to arrive during lockdown; even without a physical audience, it managed to propel her into the stratosphere.
Arlo writes in English but thinks in French, which in some way accounts for her unique wordplay. She’s a poet of the classical mold who can distill observations into the tiniest of fragments and then blow them out, refracting them into a dazzling chandelier for the world around her. ‘Black Dog’ is not the first or last song about depression and isolation, but it’s perhaps the most timely. When Arlo sings it is like she is talking just to you. She is an artist that makes being indoors and in headphones an exquisite experience.
#1 Dads — Freedom Fighter
By now, Tom Iansek’s is a well-known voice to most Australian music fans. A perennial creator, he’s spun off his work with Big Scary into a number of side projects, but #1 Dads has always brought the goods. It’s a forum for him to indulge some of his more electronic and soulful tendencies, none better expressed than on the lead single to his much-awaited follow-up record.
Because he’s usually cast as a frontman, there’s less emphasis placed on just how talented a player and arranger Tom is. The main motif of this song is stunningly delicate and disarmingly simple, giving way to a roiling middle 8 that’s up there with some of the most precious moments laid to tape this year.
Jordan Rakei — Best Part (BBC Maida Vale Session)
For some reason, this song always reminds me of my wife. It’s not that she particularly likes it, though like most songs I play enough in the house, she’s probably absorbed it via osmosis. There’s just something so rich and direct about Rakei’s cover of Daniel Caesar’s 2017 ballad. His melodic treatment in particular, and the way it’s offset against his genius keys playing. Having followed his career and watched him live multiple times I can confirm there’s nobody like Jordan in the world.
I remember us boarding a flight from London just as coronavirus was starting to rage across the world. Because nobody was travelling, I had an entire row to myself. I lay down with my headphones on to try and sleep, but once this song came on, it all hit me and I couldn’t stop crying. The chorus line isn’t even one that Rakei wrote, but I feel like it belongs to him now.
If life is a movie, then you’re the best part.
I could listen to this song 10,000 times and never tire of it.
Soccer Mommy — circle the drain
Much has been said about this generation’s constant fixation with the ’90s, but nobody gets teen movie angst note perfect like Soccer Mommy. To listen to Sophia Allison is to simultaneously move back and forward in time. She imbues the songwriting brilliance of Sheryl Crow and Bic Runga while somehow managing to craft moments that sound utterly of the now.
Everything about this tune punches me in the heart. Allison’s voice just floats over an arrangement that’s about 97% Sixpence None The Richer, all acoustic guitars and washy cymbals. It’s the sort of song that I would have worn out listening to on a Discman when I was 14. Palm muted chords, close harmonies and lyrics about dying. Exquisite.
Moses Sumney — Colouour
For better or worse, 2020 is the year the planet finally started to pay proper attention to the staggeringly talented Sumney, who has spent the last few years slowly building a devoted fanbase of indie music fans obsessed with his otherworldly voice and prodigious production skills. Releasing a double album at the height of a pandemic is exactly the sort of flex you’d expect from a guy who essentially sounds like Prince and Jeff Buckley’s love child and is as talented as both.
Colouour is nestled into the back end of the first record and it was the song that really opened my eyes that bit wider this year. It’s the aural equivalent of birds taking flight; a cacophony of fluttering saxophones that run for a full minute that clear the ground for Sumney’s nuanced exploration of colour and race. To hear Sumney jump octaves, or hang delicately on a note like morning dew on a leaf and it’s clear that there are still so many pristine, gorgeous things that can come from a year filled with pain.
Christine & The Queens — Jes Disparais Dans Tes Bras
Héloïse Letissie’s surprise EP, La Vita Nuova, was perhaps one of the most beautiful releases of the year. It’s a suite of songs centred around sadness and unrequited love and what they can teach us about life. Letissie is a superbly muscular songwriter; you can feel her dancing and shimmying with every note. This song, which translates to ‘I disappear in your arms’ is at once wistful and powerful, the sort of trick you can only employ at the peak of your powers. In fact, it comes closer to Michael Jackson’s suite of ’80s records than many others, if only through intention.
Letissie spent last year deliberately blurring the lines between masculine and feminine forms of expression. By 2020, all she cared about were deep, unyielding feelings and how we could draw energy and life force from them. Sad bangers indeed.
Jens Kuross — Unglued
Of all the shows I saw before the curtains closed prematurely on this year, the one that has stayed with me was a tiny gig by Jens Kuross at a St Pancras church in the depths of winter. Kuross is a supremely talented, wry and self-effacing singer-songwriter who should be about 20 times more famous than he is. His arranging is Thom Yorke level beautiful and to hear him sing is to be transported to another world. There is so much emotion in Kuross’ melodies that sometimes it is too much to bear.
My favourite thing to do this year was walk along the beach on a blustery day, headphones on and listening to ‘Unglued.’ It is so delicate, so aching that I have to keep playing it to make sure it hasn’t broken into a million pieces. Jens finds notes effortlessly, and with such humility, that nobody else can. He is a gift.
Låpsley — Speaking Of The End
The artist perhaps best known for her DJ KOZE-blessed ‘Operator’ made a huge splash in 2020 with her incredible new album, Through Water. Originally home to over a hundred songs, it was the product of having utterly removed herself from mainstream, a prescient move for this year. I personally couldn’t get enough of it; sumptuous and dramatic, it went heavy on rain and river metaphors as a framework for Hollie Fletcher’s unmistakable voice.
‘Speaking Of the End’ is the closer to the record and it’s a cascading wave of pianos and melody that is so raw it almost hurts to listen to. To be so honest when so young is quite unbelievable. I was extremely grateful to have this song in my life this year.
The 1975 — Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied
I will be the first to admit that I did not understand this band in the slightest until they started rolling out singles for what should have been the biggest stadium rock record of the year. Perhaps what Notes On A Conditional Form crystallised was the idea that this was a group unafraid to try everything, putting out songs like the world might end tomorrow and they didn’t want to have any regrets. Turns out they were kind of right.
This album is actually stacked with brilliant hits of all stripes, taking in country, industrial metal and ’80s pop, but ‘Nothing Revealed’, with its bizarrely endearing mix of gospel vocals and trip-hop verses was the one that stuck with me. It’s where you can really hear why girls go mad for Matty Healy, that sort of universal yearning that can cross cultural borders. I love to be right, but even more, I love being proved wrong. With lashings of beauty, this is the year The 1975 did that for me.
Didirri — Raw Stuff
Real, hot emotion is something that occasionally comes over people, but it flows through Didirri’s veins. The Australian balladeer has impressed me for ages and 2020 was no different. Of the multiple stunners he put out during lockdown, ‘Raw Stuff’, which is equal parts John Lennon and Ryan Adams but also fantastically unique, was one of my mainstays this year.
This song benefits from the subtle use of strings, but really all it needs is Didirri sitting at a piano, belting out those choruses that transform an average day into a feature presentation. You see things more clearly listening to Didirri, his cinematic voice snaps everything into focus. So many more people should know about him. He simply shines light.
Jonno Seidler is a former music journalist who still thinks people care about in-depth music writing because irony died this year, too.