A Queer In Review: Looking Back At The Best Queer Music Of 2020
Rina Sawayama said it best: “I only really do this for like, the queers and the girls and non-binaries.”
Putting it mildly, 2020 has been a very long year — a slow, dreary march through pandemic, protest, lockdown, and downright strangeness.
Cinemas, cafes, and music venues were emptied, appropriately abandoned to keep people safe. We spent much of the year confined to homes, and bedrooms, but we weren’t alone. We had each other of course, via Zoom and Microsoft Teams and whatever other video platform was on offer.
We also had music to soundtrack our turmoil. Anger, melancholy, honesty, fear, loneliness — all are adequate descriptors of the queer music that kept us company in 2020.
But perhaps the most all-consuming, defining quality of queer music in this time like no other in living memory is introspection. Whether coincidently or by design, queer musicians (like all of us) were venturing into themselves a lot this year, and returning from the search to create introspective music that at times felt almost too personal.
Queer artists have surpassed the satisfaction in being seen and now have arrived with a determination to be known. Of course, there is physically no way I can recount all the incredible work made by queer musicians in this small space. What follows is not a comprehensive catalogue of all LGBTIQ+ artistry this year, but an overview of how queer musicians shone by showcasing the deepest parts of themselves.
In The Beginning
A lifetime ago, Halsey’s brutally honest album Manic dropped at the beginning of the year. Manic was written, produced and released pre-COVID, but the uncannily honest lyrics about the artist’s isolation and loneliness resonated with the listeners in the months to come.
Speaking of demons, January also blessed us with an EP from Lesbian Jesus herself, Hayley Kiyoko. Her I’m Too Sensitive For This Shit EP paralleled themes in Halsey’s Manic, dealing with the introspective intersection of mental health, growing older, and sexuality. In the EP’s final track, ‘she’, Kiyoko talks about herself in the third person, reflecting on how being gay alters her perception of time and herself: “She acts like she’s in 7th grade/But actually she’s 20-gay.”
While January through April felt like a speedrun through the slowest, most trauma-filled months in recent history, the first quarter of the year closed out spectacularly.
Over in the UK, Rina Sawayama dropped her long-anticipated debut album, Sawayama. Hailed by Sir Elton John himself as one of 2020’s best albums, Sawayama boasts heartfelt, ’90s pop-adjacent tracks like ‘Chosen Family’ about the solidarity Sawayama feels with fellow LGBTIQ+ folks. “We don’t need to be related to relate”, Sawayama sings in her trademark unflinching vocals.
Sawayama pulses with pulp pop callbacks to the grunge-pop of the 2000s, but its heart lies in Sawayama’s willingness to pour her whole self into an album.
Back home, Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara man, Zaachariaha Fielding’s duo Electric Fields released a collaboration with KEiiNO, a queer pop group from Norway. The upbeat single ‘Would I Lie’ features both Fielding’s native language and Hugo’s native Sami.
As we began to hurtle toward mid-year, most of us now tucked away in lockdown, Perfume Genius, Kehlani, and Australia’s own Jack Colwell had some disturbingly poignant albums to keep us from going completely stir-crazy.
Perfume Genius’ Set My Heart On Fire Immediately may not have been made during, or for quarantine, but the unapologetic yearning weaved throughout the album certainly felt like it had been written by someone in love in lockdown. Kehlani’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, her second full-length album, was also eerily timed with its themes of distance, tension and isolation.
Meanwhile, Australia’s own Jack Colwell released his furious debut album, SWANDREAM, exploring his trauma, his anger, and the beauty of queer transformation. Colwell told Music Junkee back in June, “Transformation has been a big theme in my life…I think it’s unavoidable if you’re queer.”
Despite lockdown altering all sense of time, the coolness of winter indicated it was still indeed passing, and it would’ve been easy to credit the chill of winter to the season. But those chills were actually in pure reverence of Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher and a storm of Aussie queer artists.
Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, her second album, quietly devastated audiences with its dissection of trauma and heartbreak in the face of the end of the world.
Also in the States, non-binary Sudanese-American, Dua Saleh, also released their second EP ROSETTA, named for iconic Black rock and roll legend, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A moody imaginative exploration of Saleh’s religious upbringing and their sexuality, held together with dreamy distortive soundscapes, it cemented Saleh as an artist not to be ignored.
Back on home soil, queer Australian artists like Alice Ivy, Troye Sivan, Wafia, Cub Sport, and Alex the Astronaut all released EPs and albums to warm our lonely hearts. From Wafia’s self-confident utopic pop tracks on Good Things, to the pensive acoustics of Alex’s long-awaited album The Theory of Absolutely Nothing, to the familiar spacey melancholic pop of Troye Sivan’s In A Dream— queer Aussie artists were serving up their demons for dopamine all winter long.
Even queer Wiradjuri and Filipino artist Mo’Ju dropped, ‘Put It On Hold,’ an irresistible single about leaving a toxic relationship. Meanwhile, Melbourne based artist Alice Ivy’s sophomore album, Don’t Sleep was a testament to LGBTIQ+ solidarity, with almost all the collaborations on the album being with queer, trans and non-binary artists from around the world.
Solidarity And Strength
As much as queer music in 2020 felt defined by an inherent insolation, among Australian artists there was also a strong vein of connection; unity and solidarity were as much a theme in queer music in 2020 as isolation and introspection.
As the weather turned to spring, we were greeted by a bloom of singles from queer Australian artists too. October boasted tracks from Tash Saltana and Tegan and Sara, who delivered a festive femme love bop, ‘Make You Mine This Season’ — a cut from the Happiest Season soundtrack.
Alongside Tegan and Sara, the soundtrack also featured trans Black American singer and activist, Shea Diamond. In 2020, Diamond also dropped ‘I Am America,’ a soulful, defiant, celebratory single about chasing love, despite living in a country that wishes she wouldn’t.
Back home, Aussie duo Cry Club unleashed their debut album God I’m Such A Mess, a chaotic collection of angsty pop-rock tracks, dealing with taking responsibility for your own vices and virtues.
And as this horrendously unprecedented year edges almost too slowly to a close, who’s to say which queer artist will have the last word? November’s end gave us ‘Jewell Box,’ new music from Sir Elton John himself.
December’s Weird!, the second album from Gen Z’s genderfluid emo king Yungblud, has also landed.. Weird! maybe lost on some, but Yungblud’s vibrant fury-filled, yet irresistibly catchy tracks echo the guttural rallying cries of My Chemical Romance, Paramore, and other emo-pop-punk icons of the early ’00s, making the album an addictive soundtrack for those still growing into their own skin.
For similar reasons, the queer Black-women-fronted pop-punk band, Meet Me @ The Altar, and their optimistically punchy punk single ‘Garden,’ is one of the year’s best singles. Many believe pop-punk, as we knew it in the noughties, is dead — but in 2020 it’s continued to grow as a subgenre for queer and other marginalised voices to be heard.
This year has been marked by its unpredictability and chaos. But while the world felt stuck still, queer artists moved, confidently and introspectively, from making their music for the world to accept us, to making music for themselves and their communities. It is in that specificity that we found music to keep us company in a strange and lonely year.
Rina Sawayama said it best in Gal-Dem: “I only really do this for like, the queers and the girls and non-binaries,” she said. “And that’s all I care about.”
Good lord, we are beyond grateful.
Merryana Salem is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian critic, teacher, researcher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out her podcast, GayV Club where she gushes about LGBTIQ+ rep in media with her best friend. Either way, she hopes you ate something nice today.