2020 was a hard long slog, a year that started tough and only got tougher.
Indeed, it was such an onslaught of bad politics, global pandemics, and “unprecedented times” that methods of getting by were traded online like handwritten notes being passed around a classroom. There were articles extolling the benefits of puzzles; ideas for interactive Zoom games; techniques for getting through the day.
But for so many of us, the truly healing balm was music. In a year in which live gigs were almost entirely taken off the table and the festival industry became more fragile than ever before, music became deeply vital. In droves, we watched livestreams of our favourite performers; we celebrated Bandcamp Friday after Bandcamp Friday. And, privately, we withdrew and listened to the music that gives us strength.
Precisely which songs serve that function are different for each person. And so, in honour of the music that got us through the Bad Year, we asked everyone from Junkee staff to musicians to share the sounds that they returned to time and time again throughout 2020.
Sense and memory has kept me alive in 2020, the sense of simple pleasures, of sitting in my garden pre-dawn as the squirrels play around me, memories of past journeys outside our bubble.
One song has kept me in that dream state; it’s an old song written in the post war period in Japan. The original title is translated to ‘I Look Up When I Walk’ but to most people it is known as ‘Sukiyaki’. I first came to know this song as I was sitting in a yokocho or hidden indoor alleyway eatery in Ebisu, Tokyo. This one lives inside an old shopping mall from the 1970s, inside there are scores of tiny providers serving drinks and food specialties. I was there with an interpreter and what felt like the rest of Japan, all crammed in together having a wild time.
A young folk singer armed with a guitar would walk up and down these pathways, navigating the drunk patrons. She stopped at our restaurant and sung it. As soon as she began, everyone around me started up singing. It is a song of pride but not nationalism, and it comes with a tragic story of the singer Kyu Sakamoto, who died in Japan’s most fatal air crash. This piece rouses all whom hear it, we were drunk and my interpreter sung proudly along smiling with everyone else. That was some years before COVID and all things 2020, and I think in my mind represented life free from such things. I’ve found myself listening to it on repeat and, when I was recently locked in hotel quarantine after returning home from Los Angeles, I learned it, practicing about 14 times a day.
Much like the post war period and the sweetness that comes from actual human contact, this song plays to my memory and projects me into a time both future and reminiscent that which we all long to return.
Jon Hart (Boy & Bear)
We landed at Brisbane airport on the 28th of Feb with two and a half months of shows around Australia ahead of us. Two weeks later all those shows were either cancelled or postponed. What to do? We did an Obama-style pivot, locked ourselves in a little windowless writing/rehearsal room in Marrickville, and started writing new tunes. Alongside this creativity was an ‘unprecedented’ (as we heard so many times!) level of uncertainty and anxiety about the future.
Throughout my life, I’ve used music as an escape and as a way of creating a mood, but in the 20-minute drive to the studio, I found I was over-analysing everything I listened to and it was winding me up.
Coincidentally, I stumbled upon a documentary about Brian Eno and started delving into his ambient albums. We might all think we know what ambient music is, but Eno explains it in quite a unique way:
“[The intention of]…conventional background music…is to ‘brighten’ the environment by adding stimulus to it, [whereas] Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think,” he wrote in the liner notes to Music For Airports.
The two albums of his that I particularly gravitated towards are Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Thursday Afternoon. I can recommend them both to anyone who needs a bit of calm and space to think and create.
‘Daylight’ by Joji & Diplo
I didn’t know that Joji was a meme-Lord before he entered the music world. All I care about is that this song is pretty perfect. The way the melody moves over the chord changes is so subtly beautiful to me. The kind of song that I can feel pulling at my emotions.
I also listened to Summer Walker’s 2019 album Over It a lot this year, as well as Oil Change by Trapo, a young rapper from Wisconsin who I have featuring on a track on the album.
Michelle Rennex – Senior Junkee Writer
‘Ghost Town’ — Kanye West (feat. PARTYNEXTDOOR)
Do you know those times where you just need to play loud music, sit in your car, and scream at the top of your lungs? Well for me that’s been every day of this wretched year. Thankfully, Kanye’s ‘Ghost Town’ is the perfect track to let it all out to.
If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that there is truly nothing more freeing than screaming “And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free” at the top of your lungs as you drive. You see, the entire song isn’t really anything to write home about. But the final two minutes where 070 Shake sings the outro? It’s therapy, without needing a therapist.
Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour
2020 brought a lot of anxiety, and I found this album really calming to listen to. There’s something very pure, authentic and no-frills about the record which reminds me that great songs can be really powerful and reach you when you need it, and I’ve certainly found something I needed in these songs throughout the year. It’s reminded me that no matter whether you need to dance, escape, or reminisce, or cry, there’s going to be music out there that’ll be able to help you get there.
Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush
I have some really strong musical connections in 2020. There are actually a few albums in particular that stand out to me as I moved through the chaos of this year. But the first is Tame Impala’s album The Slow Rush. This so heavily reminds me of living in my apartment in LA alone as this whole thing began in March. I listened to it on my walks in the morning. Figuring out how to structure my day.
Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation’
In the midst of Melbourne’s long lockdown, what started as a light-hearted viewing session of Janet Jackson fans melting down on stage (also worth exploring) turned into something more profound when we stumbled across the music video for ‘Rhythm Nation’. Watching this incredible sonic and visual masterpiece can only be described as a spiritual experience, and one that left us awestruck.
Beyond the mind-blowing video and choreography, what really made its mark were the lyrics and message of the song, written in 1989 and yet more relevant than ever in 2020: “With music by our side, to break the colour lines/Let’s work together to improve our way of life/Join voices in protest, to social injustice/A generation full of courage, come forth with me”.
In a year that managed to be as chaotic as it was stagnant I soundtracked a lot of my time with Texan uberchillers Khruangbin and their recent album Mordechai. Being mostly an instrumental record, you can really lock into the grooves and sounds and quickly lose track of time; the perfect iso buddy.
2020 was so shit in many ways, especially being in lockdown for the majority of the year in Melbourne, a drastic change from the lifestyle I’ve been living for the past couple of years.
However, the downtime gave me a chance to really go deep on the Melbourne scene, so the majority of artists I listened to this year were local! The album that resonated with me the most in this strange time would have to be Afterlife by Ex-Olympian. This album is so wonderful and beautiful, it really offered me an escape route from everything else going on.
A routine of mine during the lockdown was hitting the park around the corner with my little puppy and playing Afterlife from start to finish. I also recently got my driver’s license and I’m always putting this album on in the car because I know I won’t have to touch my phone to skip any songs! There are so many layers to unpack on each listen, I just think it’s pure genius songwriting.
Taylor Swift’s folklore
Taylor’s incredible isolation album folklore came out just when I needed to be creatively pulled out of a black hole…and it did just that. For me, it was the wake-up call that I needed to realise that just because we were in a pandemic, didn’t mean I should stop creating. This album inspired me to dive deeper into my artistry as well as solidify exactly what I wanted my impact as an artist to be.
Sugar Bones (Confidence Man)
Erm…The Fuck Bunker (?)
It’s been a strange year. A kind of bland time soup with few distractions or diversions. After the first few weeks of extreme lockdown in Melbourne it quickly became clear we needed something to keep us sane. And we found it in dance music and the sweaty mess of the dance floor. But how? The clubs had closed their doors and would for some time.
There was nothing left to do but turn our shed into a club. Smoke machines and lasers were purchased. Decks were set up on the pool table. The Fuck Bunker was born. It became our happy place in weird times. The restricted capacity of literally just our household meant you had room to really throw down. And throw down we did! The Fuck Bunker and the dank beats played within, saved our souls and so much more. Where ever you are out there there’s one important lesson here — in uncertain times, turn your house into a club.
Declan Byrne, triple j Home & Hosed Presenter
The Kid LAROI
When you think of an Aussie making waves around the world, you probably dart to Tame Impala, Tones And I or Flume. But in 2020, The Kid LAROI didn’t just put himself in that conversation, he skyrocketed to the pointy end like it was no big deal.
First discovered in 2018’s triple j Unearthed High when he was 14 with a dream, the numbers he’s doing now, less than three years later, are seriously mind blowing. Fostered by “big bro” Juice WRLD after moving to the US, his debut release F*CK LOVE has been lapped up by millions of fans. His music is unfiltered, real and devilishly catchy and his rapping and singing skills are plain to see. And the best bit is that among all the fame and success, he still seems to have a level head and remembers where he’s from.
If you didn’t have a LAROI song stuck in your head at some point in 2020, you weren’t listening close enough.
The Kite String Tangle
During the pandemic I found that I listened to so much music that I ran out. Not of all music ever, but I certainly rinsed some albums so much that I’m going to have to put them on the shelf for quite a while. One of those albums was Caribou’s Suddenly.
I found that the journey of the album really reflected the way I was feeling during the whole year, there is some really sombre moments and some really euphoric moments and some bits that were confusing. It’s a really beautiful piece of art and was a great companion for me during COVID.
Run The Jewels’ RTJ4
It came in like a fucking steamroller in the peak of 2020’s madness, when hopelessness and despair were at an all-time high. It managed to encapsulate all the fear, anger and confusion of the time, as if they made it a week before they released it, but twist all those emotions into driving protest music, which made you want to get up and do something about it.
Killer Mike’s verse on ‘Walking in the Snow’ gave me genuine chills when I first heard it. Listening to him say “And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me/Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe'” literally one week after the death of George Floyd was an awe-inspiring experience.
Gyan Yankovich — Junkee Media Managing Editor
Sometime in April, I started listening to Mallrat’s ‘Groceries’ on repeat. I was in New York, locked down in my one-bedroom apartment with no plans to leave any time soon — not even to get groceries.
For the following three months, I would grocery shop once every two weeks, early in the morning or late at night, grabbing my items from the shelves as quickly as I could before rushing home to slowly and carefully disinfect every single one.
The song isn’t about a lockdown or even really about grocery shopping, but very existence of a song that was somewhat about groceries made me feel like it was acceptable that I was mourning days when I could pop to the shops after work, or run to the store just for a single lemon or something for dinner that night.
Nina Las Vegas
The Streets’ ‘Where The Fuck Did April Go’
I listened to SO MUCH music this year on quarantine, especially after flying to Wagga Wagga from London at the end of March. I was stuck at my parents, away from my friends, partner and let’s admit it, international dreams lol.
I was sitting at home thinking about what I was going to do for money, with my label, with my pending club releases, blah blah blah and then The Streets released ‘Where The Fuck Did April Go’ and it just calmed me. I couldn’t stop obsessing over the lyrics and sentiment. We were allllllll in this. The Streets doing The Streets in a fucking pandemic. Timely.
Every single artist was going through this, and then some, and this song brought me hope.
Yves Tumor’s & Diana Gordon’s ‘Kerosene!’
This song makes my body scream, feel and wanna fling myself at walls. I don’t know why but its honestly comforting knowing that something exists that can move me so deeply. It was a great source of comfort to me this year.
I listened to it when I wanted to cry, be happy, feel alive, feel anything. Its like a hug from a stranger. Hope. Humanity. The video is NUTS and genius and scary and perfect. Enjoy.
A Whole Damn Bunch
It’s been a wild year but so many things have brought me a lot of joy, the biggest being the music I worked on, and working on it with people I love and admire! I got to release two EPs and help with a lot of music for other people’s projects. Staying busy with work that I really care about definitely kept me going throughout it all.
A few songs that really made me feel a lot this year were ‘Kerosene!’ By Yves Tumor, ‘Learning Alive’ by DMA’S, ‘Death With Dignity’ by Sufjan Stevens, ‘IDORU’ by Grimes, ‘Kyoto’ by Phoebe Bridgers, ‘The 1’ by Taylor Swift, ‘Acid at 7/11’ by Yung Lean, ‘Party 4 U’ by Charli XCX, ‘Superstar (Live)’ by A.G. Cook, ‘Self Control’ by Frank Ocean and ‘Drive’ by Gretta Ray. There are many more, but I think I’ll have very strong memories and 2020 moments tied to those ones in particular forever.
2020 felt like its own decade. I started the year leaving my label and releasing ‘Deep Water’ with an incredible fellow indigenous artist Kaylah Truth. I then jetted to NY where I contracted COVID-19!
What a banging first four months! After recovering I linked with a new producer and after to really shape who I am as a recording artist. I’ve been working on my debut album and released a killer single late November entitled ‘Love Ain’t Free’. If it wasn’t for this diabolical yeah I wouldn’t have shifted into pop and started making the music I’ve always wanted too.
2020 has had its low points but the one thing that kept me moving forward outta the darkness was the hope and knowledge I’d be releasing music my heart truly believes in and music I truly love.
Oh God, I’m going to be that guy aren’t I? Ugh, ok… take a deep breath. Yes. This was something I was involved in. But wait — wait. It means that much to me I’m willing to look like a douche in front of you all.
In 2020 an acoustic version of ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was released unto the world. I mean it’s not just any old cover, Wally (Gotye) sings it himself, along with some tasteful (if thoroughly improvised and impromptu) interpretation by Monty Cotton, Tim Heath and myself.
In and of itself it’s not much. But the recording and the accompanying video of us performing surrounding by a roomful of people – not a mask in sight, all huddled together – only amplified the melancholy of what we experienced this year. No gigs. No social gatherings. Having people we were close to pass on without the ability to give them a proper goodbye. For many, isolation was just that.
So for that reason, much like the blues of old, this song and the performance resonates an empathy that was both real and uplifting, and a reminder — or promise? — that things will get better. Thanks for hearing me out, and Happy 2021.
Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes’s What Kinda Music
It has reinvigorated my passion when I thought I had lost it amongst the waves of frustration and apathy this year. The musicianship on What Kinda Music has made me pick up my guitar and refreshingly just practise my chops again. It’s an album where you can tell the artists have been lost in the art and created magic — and its that magic that makes music so special. It has breathed new life into me and given me hope when I was ready to throw it away.
Andrew Dooris (The Jungle Giants)
The Avalanches’s We Will Always Love You
As I stared out the window on my first flight to Queensland (my family home) two days ago, I listened to We Will Always Love You and was embraced by it. It took roughly two minutes for the record to bring me to tears, thankfully the family next to me were too distracted with their young children to notice.
Even though the record in entirety has only come out in the last month of the year, for me, it perfectly summed up the pain of being isolated, the exhaustion of enduring through a seemingly-endless challenge, and the release of joy in watching the world ease and change, as hope springs. Thanks for teaching me how to feel again,The Avalanches.
‘Feel Good Inc.’
The message this song portrays is all in the name. For us, studying different genres of music has been a great way to pass the time without live shows. You learn a lot when you leave your comfort zone and explore new sonic fields. This really displays in the music we’ve been making recently and we can’t wait to share it.
Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92
This album has meant a great deal to me for a while, but I feel like it soundtracked my 2020 and influenced my music a great deal lately. I’m able to leave this on repeat for hours on end and never get bored — it feels like a brand new project every listen and it still amazes me that it was made so long ago. Thank you Richard…..kisses.
Tara Watson — Punkee Senior Writer
Harry Styles’ ‘Falling’
Harry Styles had a big year in 2020, with songs like ‘Adore You’ and the oral sex anthem ‘Watermelon Sugar’, but the song I couldn’t stop playing was Styles’ saddest song to date: ‘Falling.’ From the first piano rift, this song is devastating. It doesn’t just wade in self-pity, it wallows in it.
While ‘Falling’ is about a romantic loss for Styles, it took on a different meaning for me this year living through Melbourne’s lockdown. It was a loss of time, a year of waste, being without friends and family, missing my mum’s face. In Melbourne, there was a tendency to force optimism on one another, with ‘we’re all in this together’ our state-wide mantra.
This was something I struggled to embrace as someone single and living alone, unable to see anyone or do anything. But what I could do is listen to ‘Falling’ and lean into that despair, permitting myself to feel sad and hopeless, if only for a few minutes.
This has been the year we have become most familiar with the four walls around us physically and metaphorically. No matter how far we are apart in this wild world, music is close, it’s intimate always.
For every feeling this year I was able to exist in the different worlds these incredible artists created. When I was in my shadows it was ‘July’ by Noah Cyrus, when my eyes were filled with sweet blue skies it was ‘Watermelon Sugar’ by Harry Styles, when I needed to teleport into the galaxy for a little and shake my heart out it was ‘High Horse’ by Kacey Musgraves and for any kind of emotion all together or in between, I went to my always and forever ultimate wild heart Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ and ‘Gypsy’.
Mac Miller’s Circles
Mac’s Circles has been my companion this year, non-stop on repeat. There’s such a weight to it, that hits all the harder given his passing. As a pretty self-deprecating person myself, I gravitate to his outlook on things and his overly personal, confessional way of writing. It’s almost like you’re peeking at his journal and there’s a realism to it that is lacking in other music, somehow all without sounding corny. It inspired and consoled me.
Joseph Earp — Junkee Staff Writer
Car Seat Headrest and Annie Hamilton
2020 really ratfucked me at the last possible moment. I was doing pretty well, all things considered, until about halfway through December. Then the world crashed down on my head. So I retreated. I went for long walks, mostly at the beach at night, leaning into the cliche, and listened to music very loudly.
More specifically, I alternated between two of the most exciting and essential indie rock acts around — Car Seat Headrest, those mosaic-makers who revisit the same themes and melodies over and over, twisting familiar shapes into unfamiliar ones and then back again, and Annie Hamilton, whose 2020 singles speak in an honest, full-throated voice.
There’s a bit on the former band’s ‘Sober to Death’ where lead singer Will Toledo screams, “we have breakdowns / and sometimes we don’t have breakdowns.” That about sums it up, as far as I’m concerned. And then there’s the moment on Hamilton’s ‘Panic’ where she leans back, struck with creative rigor mortis, and allows herself to slip into the horror of it all. “I can feel the panic setting in,” she coos. That about sums it up too.
Cosmo’s Midnight’s Yesteryear
The album that meant the most to me in 2020 was Cosmo’s Midnight second album, Yesteryear. I was able to listen to it in various forms before it came out and watch it take shape over the course of two years. I’m loving the direction they are going and they continue to surprise me with the sounds they make.
I think that Pat has really come into his own singing on a huge chunk of the tracks on the album. Not many people can go from producing to singing so seamlessly. The album goes from disco to soul and house, and everywhere in between. The twins are a huge inspiration to me and it has been so great to watch them grow into the artists/people they are now.
During 2020, both creating and listening to music helped me stay calm and focused. An album that I found was a huge part of helping me with that was folklore by Taylor Swift. Putting my headphones in and just diving into the lyrics and stories she told helped take me out of my head, even if it was just for a moment. I can’t wait to hopefully hear it live one day and sing it at the top of my lungs in floods of tears.
Joel Shadbolt (L.A.B)
Classic Blues Records
Listening to old records I was brought up on was something that help get me through this year. Classic blues albums like BB King’s Live at the Regal, and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood. I think with COVID we were forced to take some time to reflect and reassess things. Taking a trip down memory lane with music certainly was therapeutic and a way of just letting go of everything.
Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher
In a year where lots of exciting things were delayed, the new Phoebe Bridgers record was one release with a date that remained constant from its announcement. I’m a massive movie fan and watching the entire release slate for 2020 crumble before my eyes was hell sad, so this Phoebe record ended up being the most anticipated thing to drop in my world in mid 2020.
On the night of its release I did a thing I’ve never done before and haven’t done since, I sat down on my couch, put the album on in my headphones and read through the lyrics (which had already been posted online) as I listened for the first time. I’ve never been that engrossed in an album before and that first listen was one of my favourite moments of 2020 for sure. Punisher is my album of the year, hands down.
In what feels like the simultaneously longest and shortest year of my life, with the widest array of joy and grief and confusion and relief, Arlo Parks’ music has been a constant for me. I have listened to her on quiet days in my home and long drives turned up loud and solo walks in wide open spaces and rooms packed with friends. She has a knack for finding poetry in the most seemingly insignificant everyday moments and immortalising them in the most beautiful little sonic universes. I cannot wait for her album.
Youngboy NBA, Lil Baby’s ‘My Turn’s, And More
The music that really had an impact on me this year and that got me through most of it were ‘Top’ and ‘Until I Returned’ by Youngboy NBA, also Lil Baby’s ‘My Turn’ and Lil Durk’s ‘Just Cause Y’all Waited.’ These records helped me through my moods and also motivated me to go harder into the studio and helped me open more up when I’m making music.
An album that meant something to us in 2020 was Mansionair’s Shadowboxer. We had it on repeat during the peak of lockdown, we had just lost our job and Savannah was battling through a few personal issues. We just really connected with a lot of the heartfelt lyrics in the album. A song that stood out to us in particular was ‘Easier’. The main hook, “Tell me it gets easier”, literally was a line we would repeat to ourselves throughout the days.
Finneas, Jessica Pratt, Jessie Reyez
Finneas’ ‘I Don’t Miss You At All’ was my second most played song in 2020 on Spotify. The lyrics felt very relatable to my relationship status. Missing someone but pretending like you don’t just to get through the weeks. Some people like to listen to melancholy music when they are sad, but i need something that will lift me out of my hole, and inspire me to venture on!
Jessica Pratt is my calming music — the last two years I have listened to her albums the most. After being in hospital three times this year Quiet Signs helped calm my nerves and centre my thoughts to be present and have gratitude for all that’s around me.
Jessie Reyez’s ‘Shutter Island’ gave me goosebumps as soon as I heard it — “The goodbyes are getting old, Next time you can go ahead and go I’m tired of begging you to love me”. This year I struggled with feeling worthy or enough for the people in my life, there were many tears, break downs and mistakes were made but it was all a growing experience. This song got me through so many of those experiences, reminding me other people feel this way too.
2020 was a year of forced introspection and revaluation, wrapped in complete and utter resilience — a year that I am absolutely thankful for.
This year allowed me to question why I listen to the music that I do, and as a result of this, I paid more attention to the lyricism and concept of music. I also found it fascinating how the music we consumed growing up shapes our own artist writing. I found myself listening to all the music I grew up with — Usher, Boyz II Men, Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, Craig David, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Britney and a tonne more.
There were many times I just listened to classical or jazz music. I really delved deep into music with no lyrics…I felt like this allowed my thoughts to form and in a way I was practicing mindfulness by doing so. My favourite artist for this year was Kiefer, and in particular his album Bloom.
We weren’t able to keep busy this year, which allowed us to focus on our relationships… BXLST released his album that coincided with my personal situationship drama (lol). So you best believe I rinsed that album in more ways than one!