The return of dance rock, post-punk reigns supreme and black voices more important than ever: the 16 songs you might have missed in turbulent 2020!
In an unprecedented year full of surprises and unpredictability, there is one annual certainty that has returned: a countdown of best releases. Yes, the middle of December sees without fail NME and the Guardian (amongst other indie pseuds) release their “best” tracks from the last 12 months, most of which you have never heard of. Fear not, I’m here to fill you in on the tracks that might have slipped below your radar, whilst you were too busy making your own masks or donating to Captain Tom. Some big names, some small names, yet all have their own unique 2020-ness about them.
'Here’s the Thing' - Sports Team
We’ll start with a big name and an even bigger single. If you have ever read any of my other articles, which I’ll admit is a longshot, you will know my love for this indie six-piece is no secret. From Cambridge University to selling out Kentish Town Forum to releasing a record-breaking debut album, 2020 was the epitome of Sports Team’s rapid rise to stardom. The Camberwell-based outfit’s spirit and vibrancy is typified in “Here’s the Thing”, an impassioned list of the misconceptions in modern-day society. Serious tune and, if I’m honest, I would be severely surprised if you had not heard it before.
'A Hero’s Death' - Fontaines DC
Another big name before we delve into deeper indie obscurity, but I haven’t seen a single 20 track countdown without Fontaines DC yet. Fresh from the success of debut record 'Dogrel', the unapologetically Irish band responded rapidly with follow-up album 'A Hero’s Death'. I’ve picked the eponymous single as it is perhaps the perfect taster for the album. Riotous, witty, ingenious. It’s also particularly poignant for me as the last taste of live music I’ve had was seeing Grian Chatten and his charity shop clothes-clad band play Brixton. With every muttered word in Chatten’s thick Irish accent, I am taken back to the world of thrown pints and sweaty moshpits - oh such were the joys. Again, fantastic tune, but I reckon you should have already heard it.
'Comedy Gold' - Do Nothing
Ok, we’re getting a tad more obscure now. Do Nothing are a Nottingham-based four-piece, notable for their post-punk style and conversational tone. The track 'Comedy Gold' comes from their debut EP 'Zero Dollar Bill', which is certainly an acquired taste, but an incredible listen nonetheless. If you like a snarling, mocking voice complaining about consumerism and modern-day life, give it a listen.
'Corporation Street' - The Lathums
Wigan-based The Lathums are tipped for serious stardom in future years, including a spot on the BBC Future Sounds shortlist, a prize won by Adele and HAIM. Listening to 'Corporation Street', you can see why. It’s a smiling and cathartic track, deep-rooted with cynicism, but surfaced with a cheerful melody. Even though it seems every music journalist in the country is sucking up to them, with Britpop vibes and media-friendly personalities, I can see these boys on a Glastonbury stage very soon.
'Ode to the Mets' - The Strokes
Another big name, but the Strokes’ new album sounds little like the ‘00s sound they are renowned for. Instead, the aptly-named 'The New Abnormal' was much more synth-y and dance-y than their legendary debut record 'Is This It'. Yet, after 19 years, that change has suited the New Yorkers well. 'Ode to the Mets' is the reflective and slow album closer, a beautiful song from one the year’s strongest albums.
'John Cooper Clarke' - Working Men’s Club
With perhaps the coolest band name of 2020, Working Men’s Club released a debut album like few others. The brain-child of 18 year-old frontman Sydney Minsky-Sargeant (which makes you doubt the working-class nature of the album) is a new direction from anything on this list. To a heavily-electronic and bouncy backdrop, Minsky-Sargeant cries “we dance and we smile…We live and we die”. It is perhaps no surprise the band have bagged a support slot for New Order with Hot Chip, but if you’re up for trying something new, this track is for you.
'A Hymn' - IDLES
Everyone’s favourite screaming Bristolians returned this year with third album 'Ultra Mono'. Whilst maintaining their aggressive and growling tone in most songs, 'A Hymn' was a reference to their softer side. With the repeated line “I wanna be loved/Everybody does”, the track is (in some ways) a far cry from their screaming and searing criticism of the Tories and society as a whole. Yet, in other ways, 'A Hymn' is simply saying what IDLES always say, just in a slightly softer way.
'Berlin' - Fenne Lily
From a bunch of lairy Bristolians to a much more contemplative and softer one, with Fenne Lily’s track 'Berlin'. For a 23 year-old, the maturity in the singer-songwriter’s second album 'BREACH' is stunning. Profound and soft, yet not scared to venture into a heavier guitar solo, 'Berlin' is perhaps the perfect embodiment of the record. One of my favourite albums of the year, perfect if you want half an hour of indie music which isn’t consumed by male bravado and thumping drums.
'Might Bang, Might Not' - Little Simz
A mention to one of the many fantastic hip-hop records released in 2020. Little Simz, as seen in Netflix drama “Top Boy” as well as the Mercury Prize shortlist, is a pleasure to listen to. With a catchy three-note bassline and charming attitude, the track is infectiously good. A throwback to 90s R’n’B with its own 2020 swagger, this is a must-listen.
'Red Smoke' - The Reytons
Like The Lathums, The Reytons have real potential to be the next indie big-hitter. It might not be anything as new as Working Men’s Club or as contemplative as Fenne Lily, but is testament to Rock ‘N’ Roll still being alive and well. 'Red Smoke' is a song made for pyros, moshpits and thrown pints. Such a shame they released it in 2020. Signed to Indie Label of the year 'Scruff of the Neck', the South Yorkshire four-piece are a force to be reckoned with.
'Kyoto' - Phoebe Bridgers
The only American solo artist on this list is probably another artist that you’ve heard of, or perhaps already adore. 2020 saw Phoebe Bridgers release 'Punisher', a record worshipped by critics and indie kids alike. The album is emotional, vulnerable and undoubtedly personal, personified in 'Kyoto'. This track outlines her acceptance of stressful tour life, as well as an analysis of the contempt (or love) she has for estranged father. Probably the closest this list has to a tear-jerking track, but perhaps my track of the year.
'I Got Knocked out the Same Night England Did' - Bilk
Another Scruff of the Neck-signed band with a bright future ahead is Bilk. Hailing from Essex, but the polar opposite to the fake tan and designer brands you would associate with the county, the punk three-piece are another musical product of suburban boredom. With a blend of hip-hop, post-punk and Rock ‘N’ Roll, the band are a must see on the festival circuit next year. In June, Bilk released 'I Got Knocked out the Same Night England Did', a narrative of a fight following England’s infamous defeat against Croatia in 2018. The lyrics are perhaps a tad obnoxious, but the song as a whole is an unbelievable track, taken from a very strong and infectious growing discography from the Essex indie newcomers.
'Black Dog' - Arlo Parks
Arlo Parks, one of the undisputed breakout stars of 2020, is one of those artists who has indescribable talent. Every single that she has released this year has been emotive and (quite frankly) brilliant. However, 'Black Dog' is a song that fits into 2020 perfectly. In a year where so many have struggled, Parks candidly discusses the honest perils of what it’s like to be best friends with someone who is severely depressed. This is a very hard notion to convey in music, but the South-West Londoner does it perfectly. For Arlo Parks, the sky is the limit, with a Number 1 album in January easily within reach.
'Care' - Beabadoobee
Philippines-born London teen Beabadoobee has made a name for herself with her bedroom pop, chilled ballads about love, depression and other trials and tribulations of Gen Z life. However, when she released her debut album 'Fake it Flowers', critics and fans alike were surprised by the aggression and punk flare that was brought to the table. With strong Elastica vibes, the flagship single 'Care' is a cathartic confession, in which you can feel a weight being lifted off the young artist’s shoulders.
'Beautiful Faces' - Declan McKenna
I may be wrong, but I think it’s impossible to hate Declan McKenna. With a permanent smile, fearless fashion sense and a knack for writing likable songs, the Hertfordshire prodigy has had another strong year. His second album 'Zeros' was critically acclaimed, with many citing Bowie in their responses, a superlative compliment. 'Beautiful Faces' is yet another high-energy, smiling, high-quality track from McKenna.
'You Ain’t the Problem' - Michael Kiwanuka
In a year that will be remembered for so many negative reasons, the Black Lives Matter movement was perhaps one spec of joy and optimism in such a dismal year. As with the aforementioned Arlo Parks and Little Simz, music by Black-British artists is something that is at the forefront of the movement. Even without its cultural context, Michael Kiwanuka’s latest album 'KIWANUKA' is a remarkable album. With confident vocals and lyrics underpinned with a fusion of traditional African instrumentals and more Western rock rhythms, the album opener 'You Ain’t the Problem' is a track that certainly ensures that the record hits the ground running.
This is no means an exhaustive and complete list. Special mentions should go to Cruel Hearts Club, Bears in Trees and RIC who are other bands who are worth a listen, but the list is never ending. It really is such a strong testament to the power of music that, in a year like no other, amazing songs are continuously released and great new artists have the ability to emerge. The future is bright for the UK indie scene, as well as hip-hop and R’n’B being maintained fruitfully. Whilst no one knows what is going to happen next year, or even next week, there is one constant in our life: music.
Words: Tom Farmer (@TomFarmerJourno @tomfarmer5000)