Encapsulating a tough year: a 2020 playlist in review

Will Talbot, Scarlet Staff

2020 was a really difficult year for our society, and for myself for endless reasons, yet it was an inspiring and liberating year for pop music, music in general, and my own music listening. Quarantine and the isolation it brought led to me looking for new music to fill my time and reflect on the busy last few years of my life as I have transitioned into adulthood and from high school to college. And musicians found new ways to perform and share their music despite the challenges of the pandemic.

I was impressed by both the wide variety of new releases, and older songs I had not heard of or found time to listen to previously. It is not surprising that less than a third of the songs on this list are from artists I was not a big fan of before this year, and that there are many great songs from this year that just missed out on the list. It is really exciting to see so many young, talented artists who started releasing music in the second half of the 2010s set such a good course for themselves to start the new decade. It is also really exciting to see so many established acts reinvent themselves this year. The common thread of these songs, even those that were written before the pandemic started to spread, is that they express, most often through lyrics but also through instruments, the struggles, intricacies, and joys of social life in these unprecedented, difficult times. 


  1. “Heavy” by Orla Gartland 

The Irish singer-songwriter kicks off our list with a stripped-back piano ballad from her EP “Freckle Season” in which she reminisces on a relationship that has recently ended. Reverb in the simple piano and synth chords sets the atmosphere, backing her simple but clear and beautiful voice as she relays painful, intimate details such as “I wish your mum and I could be friends / I think about her now and then / How we drove up to her house / I’ll never see that dog again.” The title fits the mood, and her lyrics strike a chord during a time in which many of us are spending much time at home, and can reflect on social situations from “before quarantine” that we wish we could have navigated better. In the outro, strings swell in and the tempo increases as she hauntingly asks her former partner “Do you think about it too?” 


  1. “Breathe” by Knuckle Puck featuring Derek Sanders

This Chicago pop-punk band and the lead singer of the band Mayday Parade team up to give us an important reminder for this uniquely challenging year on “Breathe” off the former’s album “20/20”, with the beginning of the chorus stating “Just breathe / If the world has opened up beneath your feet”. Singers Joe Taylor and Nick Casasanto, along with Sanders, combine to convey this message as hopeful, twinkling guitars from Kevin Maida representing hope contrast with chugging guitars from Maida and Casasanto and bass from Ryan Rumchaks representing working to try to get by.     


  1. “Garden” by Meet Me @ the Altar 

This pop-punk banger is the debut major-label single from the American pop-punk band, whose trio of members are from different states and first met and recorded songs online. Guitars from Tea Campbell whirl as they fill the mix with technical riffage, and drums from Ada Juarez bombastically keep shifting beats as singer Edith Johnson tells a person that she cares about them and is there to help them through tough times. This song has been a refreshing way to energetically pick up my spirits and spread Johnson’s message to people in my life in these often difficult times.  


  1. “Stockmar” by Vasudeva 

This band, who almost paradoxically make a danceable form of instrumental music influenced by post-rock, made the first song that blew me away last year, “Stockmar” off their album “Generator”. Despite all that occurred, with my and most everyone else’s lives and connections with others upturned and shaken, this song kept a consistent spot in my listening rotation. With a searching synth intro leading to a drum fill that sets a steady beat of drums from Derek Broomhead, piano from Grant Mayer and guitar from Mayer, and Corey Mastrangelowith wayward synths lurking behind, the song continued to grab my attention. The chorus, despite not including any words, consistently gave me a feeling of euphoric triumph over adversity with emphatic unison hits and diverse drum fills. The bridge, with droning riffs creating a feeling of tense anticipation, is released into a quiet section of acoustic guitar and synth flourishes. Then the verse builds to a second triumphant chorus, with added mallet percussion textures, which is always a pleasure to hear as I reveled in the small joys of completing a school project or connected with a friend during this tough year.       


  1. “Parachute” by Covet

This math rock band from California took listeners on a musical journey with their second single from their debut full-length album “technicolor”. The song stands out as one of few tracks with lyrics from guitarist and singer Yvette Young in their discography, but her wistful lyrics telling a partner that it’s ok for their relationship to end and there’s so much else to do in the world is just the tip of the iceberg in regards to the song. The song starts with a build of psychedelic guitars from Young and bubbling bass from David Adamiak, which builds to a complex groove of swirling guitars and smooth-sounding and technical bass. Drummer Forrest Rice enters with an energetic beat. After Young’s verse, a breakdown ensues and leads back to the groove, now including some intense fills from Rice. Then another build begins, highlighted by the same smooth bass and chiming guitars from Young, to a second iteration of the breakdown. The bridge follows with atmospheric drum fills and Young soothingly singing. Young then adds a masterful guitar solo, eventually adding tension and louder dynamics, before giving her bandmates time to shine and adding a chillaxing last minute of cymbals, acoustic guitar, and her multilayered vocals. Technical music has never before been this refreshing to listen to.  


  1. “Because” by jizue 

The Japanese jazz and math rock bands’ first single from their album “seeds” is another song with simple, meaningful lyrics and beautiful, soothing music to back it up. The refrain “I feel safe in your arms” is repeated, reminding us of those who comfort and carry us through challenging times such as this past year. The song opens with a songscape of chiming piano from Kie Kitagi and guitars from Noriyuki Inoue and continues this way through the first chorus, and then a build with intricate drum fills leads to the aforementioned refrain being layered with the chorus. Then a triumphant instrumental passage of ascending riffs ensues. Inoue later shows off his skills with a relaxed guitar solo that transforms from a tremolo-backed build to a second triumphant chorus/outro.   


  1. “Dream Boy” by Beach Bunny

The single from the Chicago rock band’s first album “Honeymoon” is less than two minutes, thirty seconds in length, but is a signature, memorable song that you can’t help but sing along to. The summery vibe of the track is amplified by lead singer Lili Trifilo’s heartfelt lyrics with references to common images of young love and the contrasts between swelling riffs from the pre-choruses and bouncing, light riffs in the verses from guitarist Matt Henkels. The ebbs and flows of young love are portrayed as well through the perfectly executed quick stops and starts led by drummer John Alvarado and bassist Anthony Vaccaro. This track was the soundtrack to escapist dreams of better days for me, and surely many others, this year. 


  1. “Fever Dream” by mxmtoon

This song, the first track off the Californian singer’s EP “dawn”, was my anthem for this wild, chaotic, distressing, and cathartic year. It’s a much simpler song than most of those on this list, and its simplicity is its strength. The song opens and closes with a lush guitar riff and faint birdsongs, and springs into mxmtoon’s powerful voice. Industrial drums pound, propelling the listener into a magical chorus beginning with “I want something more than / More than restless mornings / Getting by, so boring / Take your time, enjoy it / Every fleeting moment” These lines perfectly described the repetitiveness of days spent at home in summer 2020, in which I rushed, often in vain, to be happy and productive through monotony and depression always lingered within my personal life and the outside world. The last two of these lines speak to how I began to realize that I could sometimes embrace “living in the moment”, enjoying the small pleasures and blessings and not putting pressure on myself to always be busy with one project or another. In the bridge proceeding the final, triumphant chorus, backed by the birdsongs, the guitar riff, and subtle synths, she sings of taking new opportunities despite not knowing where exactly they will take her (and, as a previous lyric relay, if she will stray too far). These lines lead me to reflect on how, despite the hardship, there may be great opportunities that await if I approach them with the right openness and positive mindset. 


  1. “Jackie Onassis” by Sammy Rae & the Friends 

The American singer and her band released one of the most complexly brilliant and well-crafted singles of the year, beginning with chiming keys, delicate saxophone, rumbling drums, and descending bass before the singer enters with her smooth bluesy voice and describes the beginning of her story about falling in love with an amazing woman as the bass rises and the keys indicate abounding opportunity. She describes how the woman, Jackie Onassis (a reference to John. F. Kennedy’s wife), excels in academics and charm as the drumbeat shuffles and guitar strums and strings enter. Saxophones enter as she describes an incident in which a spectator insulted her and Jackie was kind to her and proud of her for standing up for herself. She then joyfully describes how they got together and how the relationship improved her self-esteem, as a saxophone section, headed by a lead alto, backs her up with complex rhythms. The end of the song showcases the impressive range, from deep to falsetto, of Rae’s sensual voice, and the song ends with the same beautiful chiming keys. The song is one of the most joyous and pleasant to the ear songs I have heard, a needed stress-reliever in this trying year, and explores a woman coming out of her shell and into her own. 


Honorable Mentions 

“Your Light” by The Big Moon 

The British band’s atmospheric, driving single off their album “Walking Like We Do” captures an air of clarity and confidence as lead singer Juliette Jackson sings about how, despite their struggles, she is rejuvenated by the light a person she cares about brings to her life.    

“Open Your Heart” by Birdy 

The British singer’s hauntingly beautiful ballad off her EP “Piano Sketches” shows off her expressive, powerful voice and ability to create a soundscape with a single piano, as she urges a person to open themselves up to her with the full capacity of their love.  

“20/20” by Knuckle Puck  

Knuckle Puck opens “20/20” with a bang, as the title track fills one’s ears, after a simple acoustic guitar riff bursts into an energetic, riff-backed message about taking advantage of the opportunities you have in the moment; the track also features some amazing backing vocals and drum fills.  

“Acrid” by The Beths  

On this track from their sophomore album “Jump Rope Gazers”, the band from New Zealand performs rollickingly, with their signature group vocals and psychedelic guitar riffs, as lead singer Elizabeth Stokes tactfully and intelligently describes the process of trying to get to know a person better in the right way.  

“Rock Bottom” by MisterWives 

The American band, in this single off their album “SUPERBLOOM”, lays down an energetic beat with driving drums, grooving guitars, and trumpet hits and swells, as lead singer Mandy Lee triumphantly sings about recovering and healing after a bad situation.  

“Special Berry” by Standards 

The American math rock band shows off their skills to make an impressively technical yet incredibly danceable song with the lead single off their album “Fruit Island”; guitarist Marcos Mena stands out with his ability to play with both intensity and delicacy, adding an incredible amount of emotion to the track. 


  1. “Farewell” by Covet 

Closing out my review with an album closer, the number one song of 2020 also comes from “technicolor” by math rock group Covet. encapsulates through both its lyrics and instrumental what I got out of 2020’s trials and unsung triumphs of personal struggle and growth. The song opens with hazy reverb, and Yvette Young singing soothingly, “Hey, you’re gonna be okay”, backed by dreamy guitar and bass from David Adamiak. After an instrumental breakdown, Young sparks lyrical genius with the lines “Hey, we should run towards our fears / It’s not like we have something to lose / When your world is crashing down / You gotta hold on to something” as the intensity rises. Last year, I learned that the unexpected is just part of life, as I saw much of what I built in college, in terms of emotional security and social success, seemingly come crumbling down with the lockdowns caused by COVID-19. Yes despite missing people I could not see in-person dearly, and initially having a difficult time adjusting to quarantine and other sad disruptions, I adapted; I learned how to bake, how to stay in contact with friends across the world, explored new music and tv shows, and deepened my connections with my family. I stayed true to myself but learned how to be more open to what life brought for me, to make the most of what I have. And Young’s lyrics capture my experiences succinctly. The band let’s go, turning to their signature instrumental style for the second half of the song, grooving with Young hitting some harmonics into a recapitulation of the breakdown with Adamiak playing some intense, juicy chords. The band builds, with Young crescendoing up the scale, Adamiak creating a wall of sound, and Forrest Rice executing some insane, rapid-fire drum fills. Then the intensity settles down into a hazy guitar melody, a fittingly bizarre end to a list about a bizarre year.