Last week, I featured my top albums of 2020, but there are a lot of individual songs from 2020 not on those albums I want to share. As I sifted through my favorites from the year, I noticed a theme—the protagonists in the songs are all dealing with something bad, from annoying to unpleasant to horrible. But depending on the song, how they deal with the problems is different. I've arranged the songs in a general order of despair turning to hope, with lots of gradations between. I hope you enjoy the mix!
My Favorite Tracks of 2020 mix: Despair Turns to Hope
- Halsey: "Graveyard" from Manic – A captivating exploration of an unhealthy love with unhealthy consequences. The production is stellar—pay attention to the clapping, particularly. Technically, this song came out in 2019–but the album came out in 2020, so I'm counting it.
- Lido Pimienta: "Te Queria" from Miss Colombia – This album takes its name from an incident in 2015 when Miss Colombia was mistakenly announced as the winner of the Miss Universe pageant. Pimienta, who is also from Colombia but now lives in Canada, uses this metaphor to describe how she has been treated in the music industry. The singer in this song (that title translates as "I liked you") falls in love with someone, thinking that the love would be reciprocated—but instead, she realizes her love would never be returned. So she dumped them. Pimienta creates a unique sound with steel drum and low saxes.
- Norah Jones: "Hurts to Be Alone" from Pick Me Up Off the Floor – The protagonist in this jazzy song deals with a breakup. I love how this song starts with the singer saying "never hurts to be alone" but in the end, she realizes that it "hurts to be alone" after all. Though this song was recorded before the pandemic, I'm guessing in this period of social distancing, now even more people can relate.
- Lady Gaga with Ariana Grande: "Rain on Me" from Chromatica – In this catchy dance-pop tune, while the protagonists are feeling down, they are choosing to take their depression as an indication that they are alive—and dancing it out.
- Watkins Family Hour: "Fake Badge, Real Gun" from Brother Sister – From two-thirds of the newgrass band Nickel Creek, Brother Sister marks the first time Sara and Sean wrote songs with only each other. This song is about a type of person we've seen a lot of in 2020—people who take it upon themselves to broadcast and enforce their own point of view, especially when that view differs from the facts or the law. You know, the type of people who stormed the capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to take out their own judgements on the U.S. Congress. The message of the song, though, is that the truth will win out in the end. I hope that is that is the case.
- Ohmme: "Mine" (single) – Speaking of distasteful people, this song is about people who think everything is theirs, even though they didn't really make any of it. I love how the music is catchy but also captures the absurdity of people who look at everything and say "mine." I think my favorite (and true) line is "Nothing trickles down that isn't bleeding." The unconventional harmonic progression is pretty awesome, too.
- Phoebe Bridgers: "Chinese Satellite" from Punisher – This song, from many people's album of the year, is about the problems of belief in modern life—wanting to believe in an afterlife, but struggling because of what you have experienced. I love Bridgers's images of 1) wishing on a Chinese satellite because the stars aren't visible because of light pollution and 2) her SciFi vision of going home. I also love the little production touches like the background satellite beeping and the judicious use of strings.
- Buscabulla: "Nydia" from Regresa – This song kicks off the more hopeful half of the mix. Buscabulla is a Puerto Rican married couple band. They wrote this song soon after they moved back to Puerto Rico from New York. This song is inspired by Nydia Caro, a Puerto Rican singer and actor, and is about depression and writer's block, with a hint of hope in some spoken lines at the end.
- Dua Lipa: "Don't Start Now" from Future Nostalgia – In perhaps the catchiest dance song of the year, one that feels in conversation with Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," while the protagonist has suffered a break-up, she's taken control and figured out how to move on, even when her ex wants to come back. I have to love that prominent bass line in the chorus—and the way it drops out in the pre-chorus.
- Brian Ó hEadhra & Fiona Mackenzie: "Chan Eil mi gun Mhulad Orm" from Tuath: Songs of the Northlands – This Scots Gaelic song for waulking (the beating of woven wool to make it softer, usually done by groups of women) is about how even though the protagonist isn't getting married while everyone else is, they won't marry an old, ugly man—but instead hold out for a brainy lad. The accompaniment, which starts sounding a little like plucked strings, turns into a pretty awesome electronica background underneath a processed voice. The production also underlies the song's theme of not wanting to be stuck with the past.
- Twice: "Say Something" from Eyes Wide Open – In this macaronic (a fancy way of saying it is in two languages) song from a K-Pop group, the protagonist is ready for something to happen between her and someone else and has a lot of hope that it will happen soon. I guess this is the year for disco nostalgia, though this has some 80s-facing touches, like the piano fills and the sax outro.
- Angelica Garcia: "Guadalupe" from Cha Cha Palace – Here, our Latinx protagonist is seeing some inspiration for how she want to be—from the Virgin Guadalupe, a woman who holds power that doesn't come from her looks. This music hits you hard and features a lot of open fifths, which serves to highlight the religious theme.
- S2_Cool: "Shun the Yuck" from Shun the Yuck – Yeah, I know, more updated disco. But it comes with an inspirational message. I know I'm done with all the "look at me." The intro grabs your attention and the flute is a cherry on top.
- Jeff Williams and Casey Lee Williams: "Trust Love" from RWBY, Vol. 7 (Music from the Rooster Teeth Series) – I got into this (admittedly ridiculous) American anime this year. I especially got into the music, the songs of which are by a Berklee School of Music professor and sung by his daughter. This is the opening credit song for season 7, which besides shredding, has another inspirational message—trust yourself and your friends and get to work. If Guitar Hero comes back, this one might be featured.
- Katy Perry – "Smile" from Smile – Katy Perry has always been hit or miss for me, but this song was a big hit. While not written about the pandemic, there are certainly parallels. The message: sometimes, our trials end up making us better. This song always gives me an extra push when I'm out running.
- Childish Gambino: "47.48" from 3.15.20 – Atlanta native Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino), fresh off winning the Record of the Grammy for "This is America," put out this album simply titled the date it came out, which was right when everything shut down. This final track (which started in 48th second of the 47th minute) is a letter (and conversation) to/with his son, the message being: the world has a lot of problems, especially for Black people, but can still be a great place.