Despite being such an upside down and difficult year, and the chaos in the music industry due to the pandemic, so much amazing music was released. It was a real struggle every single month to choose just one song (and as you can see, in some cases I couldn’t). Having said that, my mental health has been really bad for most of the year and I listen to music less when I’m depressed (I think it’s just too emotional when my emotions are already very fragile) but when I felt able to, it was and is such a comfort. So I’m really, really grateful to all the artists who continued to work on and put out music in a year when so many people really needed it.
1. 929 by Halsey
I was so excited about Halsey’s new album and it turned out to be one of my favourite albums of the year. I absolutely adore it, adore almost every single song. So this was a really hard choice (although I think ‘More’ was a pretty close second). But I love this one because it’s so simple and it tells so many stories and shares so many beautifully detailed painful and powerful moments, like “And I’ve stared at the sky in Milwaukee and hoped that my father would finally call me” and “I lost the love of my life to an ivory powder but then I realise that I’m no higher power.” It drew me in straight away; it’s so visual and yet so emotional that you could be experiencing it all for yourself. It’s honestly hard to describe how and why I love it so much. But it’s one of my favourite songs of hers and I’m so glad I got to hear it live.
Favourite Lyrics: “And I remember this girl with pink hair in Detroit / Well she told me / She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die / ‘Cause we need you,” and honestly, I think that she lied / And I remember the names of every single kid I’ve met / But I forget half the people who I’ve gotten in bed”
A very important note: I love that, on The Manic World Tour, she changed the lyrics from “She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die, ’cause we need you,” and honestly, I think that she lied” to “She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die, ’cause we need you,” and honestly, I think she was right.” It got the biggest cheer both nights I saw the show and I cried my eyes out even though I knew it was coming from all the videos posted of the shows.
2. Life of the Party by Ingrid Andress // Small Town Hypocrite by Caylee Hammack
I absolutely loved ‘Life of the Party’ when Ingrid performed it on tour so I was very happy when it was on the album (although ‘Blue’ may have beaten it if she’d released that one). I love the contradiction of the sad emotions painted as an upbeat, party song. It’s like the song is literally a manifestation of the denial that the relationship is over and everything is awful. Ingrid’s vocals are incredible anyway, but they seem particularly stunning in this song: you can hear how close to the edge all of these volatile emotions are, all the anger and misery and hurt, and how much she’s trying to ignore them. In just her voice. She’s an amazing vocalist. I don’t know how she’ll do at the upcoming Grammys with such heavy competition but just to be nominated for three really significant awards on her first album is incredible. I can’t help thinking back to when I first met her in 2018 and what her reaction would’ve been if I could’ve told her where she’d be today.
Favourite Lyrics: “I’m the life of the party / Round here, everybody loves me / But they don’t know that I’ve been hurtin’ / ‘Cause, baby, ever since you left me / I’ve been the life of the party”
I first heard Caylee sing this song in 2016, on my second trip to Nashville and Tin Pan South. It was so heartbreaking then and somehow, it seems even more heartbreaking now. It tells such a sad story in such rich and painful detail that I can’t help but get caught up in it every time I listen to it. The lyrics are all so stunning and her vocal performance is amazing; she conveys the regret in the song so powerfully that it often makes me cry. Caylee has since released her debut album, If It Wasn’t For You, and it’s full of songs that are just as powerful and emotional. I love most of them but I think my favourites – or at least two of them – are ‘Forged In The Fire’ and ‘Mean Something.’ They both hit me so hard each time that I usually end up in tears. If she ever tours in the UK, you’ll be able to recognise me as I will probably be sobbing obnoxiously through the entire show because her songs trigger such big emotions in me.
Favourite Lyrics: “And that scholarship was a ship that sailed / When I chose you and daddy gave me hell / I made myself into someone else just to love you, damn I loved you / Took all my plans and I put ’em in a box / Phantom pains for the wings I lost”
3. the other girl (with Halsey) by Kelsea Ballerini
I was so excited about Kelsea’s new album and I was not disappointed. There were so many songs I could’ve chosen, including ‘the way i used to’ and ‘half of my hometown.’ But I absolutely adore both Kelsea and Halsey and their friendship is so freaking adorable (their CMT Crossroads was a true gift) and I love that it’s a female/female duet, which you don’t get half as often as a female/male duet. And what makes it even better is that it isn’t about two girls fighting over a guy, but about each of them recognising why he likes the other so much – because they’re both awesome women in their own way: ‘who’s the diamond, who’s the pearl?’ – and realising that he’s treating them BOTH badly. It’s about whether either of them are willing to put up with it. It would be super cool if they collaborated again and continued the story (in my mind, they both dump him and go on to be best friends) but I can’t really see it happening. It’s super catchy and their voices really compliment each other; it’s such a good song. And this performance (I’m assuming it was during the rehearsal for the CMT Crossroads as they’re dressed and made up differently) of it really shows what great performers they both are.
Favourite Lyrics: “Are you mad? Me too / And I wonder in his world / Is it me? Is it you? / Who’s the other girl?”
4. Couch (Unreleased) by Kalie Shorr
During the first lockdown (in the UK), Kalie was doing a lot of different livestreams on various platforms and I swear, it was one of the things that kept me going when I was really struggling with everything. And during an Instagram live with Savannah Keyes (another awesome – and lovely – Nashville singersongwriter), she played two songs that they’d written together with Skip Black, the day after the big break up that inspired a lot of her album, Open Book. The first was ‘The One,’ which made it onto the album (and is definitely one of my favourites) and then this one, ‘Couch,’ which remains officially unreleased (although she has played it on her podcast, Too Much To Say). I fell in love with it straight away; it was just so raw and heartbreaking. I ended up working out the chords and play it on the piano quite a bit. I just absolutely adore it. It’s such a beautiful song.
Favourite Lyrics: “You left a picture on your old night stand / Like it’s some kind of message, like, ‘I don’t give a damn’ / If I need a reminder that I’m brokenhearted / Baby, there’s a million in this apartment / I don’t need a picture on your old nightstand”
5. Atom Bomb by Lauren Cimorelli // California by Kina Grannis
I loved Cimorelli (at the time, a band of six sisters but the youngest has now left) as a teenager and when I looked them up again a while back, I saw that a few of the girls were releasing their own music. I gravitated towards Lauren’s very quickly because of the lyrics, melody, and production. They just fit my taste in music better. I rediscovered her just after she’d released ‘Atom Bomb’ and I just loved it. I loved the detail and emotive language in the lyrics, the melodies were so catchy, and the production was epic; it really reminded me of ‘Wonderland’ by Taylor Swift. I love how she compares the end of a relationship with something of such catastrophic destruction because that’s often how my emotions feel: enormous and overwhelming and end-of-the-world. So I really relate to it emotionally as well as loving all the songwriting and sonic elements. She’s since released several more songs and ‘Rabbit Hole’ also ranks very highly on my list.
Favourite Lyrics: “What’s yours, what’s mine / Keep trying to pick up what’s left of me / Breathe slow / Let go but that smoke just keeps / Suffocating me”
During the first UK lockdown, I spent a lot of time playing the piano. I find it hard to think about anything but what I’m playing, something I desperately needed, and the lower octaves felt very soothing. One of my favourite songs to play is ‘California’ by Kina Grannis, which she wrote while trapped for a hundred days in Jakarta due to visa problems while touring in 2015; it’s a beautiful song and the sound of it is so gentle and comforting. I ended up thinking a lot about the parallels between the song and everything that was going on in the world at that moment: the pandemic, the lockdown, and how all of that was affecting us all (I hope Kina herself has been coping okay having had to go through these two similar, extremely difficult situations). It’s still one of my favourite songs to play (when the nerve pain I’ve been experiencing isn’t too bad); it feels like a desperately needed hug in these really hard times and I never take for granted how much comfort it brings me.
Favourite Lyrics: “Hey there, California / I can hear you when I wake up / In the distance, like the ocean / You calling me back to your side / Holding my breathe in the night / I listen again for your song”
6. Little Voice by Sara Bareilles
I distinctly remember listening to this song for the first time: I was lying in bed in the dark and it felt like Sara was singing directly to me, putting so many of my thoughts and feelings into words. I listened to it over and over again and just cried my eyes out. It was exactly what I needed to hear. It’s so simple but the lyrics are so powerful, effortlessly capturing so much emotion with so few words. Months later, I don’t have such an extreme emotional reaction but it still means a lot to me. It both lifts me up and calms my soul.
Favourite Lyrics: “It’s just a little voice and if you’re listening / Sometimes a little voice can say the biggest things / It’s just my little voice that I’ve been missing”
7. this is me trying by Taylor Swift
It’s very, very, VERY tempting to cheat and just say the whole of Taylor Swift’s surprise eighth album, folklore, or at least list my top five (‘the 1,’ ‘exile,’ ‘my tears ricochet,’ ‘mirrorball,’ and ‘this is me trying’) but I’m trying my very best to keep to the tradition of having a somewhat concise list. The top spot is a rock solid tie between ‘mirrorball’ and ‘this is me trying,’ because I love them both so much and relate to them both so strongly but, in the end, I decided to write about ‘this is me trying’ because, having had such an awful year mental health wise, it felt more fitting. It just sounds like how I feel so often and Taylor’s voice as she sings it… she sounds like she’s feeling all of it, all of these emotions I feel so strongly, and that only made me feel more connected to the song, to the album, to her. The lyrics are just stunning and I related to so many of them: “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting / I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting / I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back,” makes me think about how everyone called me ‘gifted’ as a child and young teenager but ever since then, my life has been put on hold somewhat by having to deal with my mental health and the difficulties caused by my Autism and that third line is so similar to a recurring thought pattern of mine, of wondering whether anyone would even notice if I disappeared; I feel “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout / Could’ve followed my fears all the way down” so strongly it’s painful, both in the sense of getting sucked into spirals of fear and anxiety and in the sense of having periods of feeling suicidal; “They told me all of my cages were mental” reminds me of how hard I had to fight to get my diagnoses because nobody believed me and I was constantly dismissed, which has ultimately resulted in even more problems; “I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere / Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here / Pourin’ out my heart to a stranger” could be the story of my life in how I was always ‘the best’ at things because I was so driven by perfectionism and the fear of getting things wrong or letting people down and while that initially put me ahead, it ended up backfiring and resulting in mental health problems that have now put me behind in so many ways, many of which I’m now dealing with (or trying to deal with) in therapy (although I’d hardly call her a stranger, having seen her for almost six years now); the line “And it’s hard to be at a party / When I feel like an open wound” really just describes any mental health bad day, when having to function feels excruciating because just existing is painful; and “I just wanted you to know / That this is me trying,” just sums me up. I’m always trying. always, always trying.
As I’ve kind of just described, I related to it so much because, with my Autism, my mental health issues, my physical health problems, and so on, I feeling like I’m trying my goddamn hardest everyday, just to get through the minute, the hour, the day. And most of the time, no one even knows that all of this is going on under the surface, sometimes because I don’t want them to and sometimes because I already feel so fragile that to let it all pour out would shatter me. Because it’s taking all of my energy to hold it together and if I let go, I might never be able to get a hold on it all again. And doing all of that work takes so much energy. When you’re working that hard to just survive, it’s so easy to feel like you’re failing because you’re not achieving in the same way as everyone around you – getting through the day doesn’t feel like an achievement when your best friend has just got a promotion or your sibling has gotten amazing grades. It’s easy to feel like it just isn’t worth trying but it is and this song is a testament to that, to staying still instead of moving backwards, to making baby steps of progress, to trying and trying and trying, even when it feels excruciating. I related to all of those feelings so strongly that it took my breath away. It’s an incredible song and maybe one of her most important ones.
Favourite Lyrics: “I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back / I have a lot of regrets about that / Pulled the car off the road to the lookout / Could’ve followed my fears all the way down”
8. Wait For It from Hamilton
I finally saw Hamilton when it was released on Disney+ and I absolutely loved it, every element, from start to finish. It was just incredible. I know that it’s not without its flaws but it’s really fascinating, especially from a creative perspective. It’s so clever and layered and I find it so inspiring as a writer. I’ve been watching it over and over again and I get more out of it every time. I could’ve chosen almost any song because I love so many of them but after much deliberation, I chose this one. I can’t explain it really; there’s just something about it.
Favourite Lyrics: “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints / It takes and it takes and it takes and we keep living anyway / We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes / And if there’s a reason I’m still alive when everyone who loves me has died / I’m willing to wait for it”
(And just in case I needed more awesome, Chloe Bennet – who played Daisy Johnson in Agents of Shield, my all time favourite character – and her cast mate, Jeff Ward, did multiple lip syncs to Hamilton songs and they’re hilarious. As if I needed more reasons to love both Chloe and Hamilton…)
9. Coming Back To You by Sara Bareilles
I was in a pretty bad place mentally when this album, More Love, came out so I kept putting off listening to it; I didn’t want my depression to taint my feelings about the songs. But eventually I managed to listen to it and, as always with a Sara record, I fell in love with it. There are multiple songs that I really, really love but ‘Coming Back To You’ just really spoke to me from the first listen. I love the energy, I love the instrumentation, the melodies are super catchy, and the lyrics are just so beautiful. I connected to the verses especially straight away, especially the ones I’ve listed as my favourites. They just hit so close to home and yet singing along to them feels so freeing. I love it.
Favourite Lyrics: “I’m facing all of my fears / I’ve lined them up and wonder how I’ve been with them for years / They had me crippled before / They made a home in my heart but they’re not welcome anymore”
10. My Voice by Kalie Shorr
October was the month of Kalie Shorr. She announced her record deal, announced the upcoming re-release of her upcoming album – titled Open Book: Unabridged – released her new single, ‘My Voice,’ played an awesome livestream show (I mean, what I saw was awesome but I had major difficulties with the app) during which she also played another incredible new song, ‘Eighteen,’ and she released a worktape of her unreleased song, ‘Strawberry Blonde,’ (which she’d promised to do if Biden won the US election) which was awesome (if the lyric ‘you might find it surprising I stopped taking shit from anyone’ doesn’t describe my life the last few years of my life than I don’t know what does). So a Kalie song was necessary for this month. I could choose all three of the songs we got this month because they were all fantastic in their own way but I’m gonna go with ‘My Voice’ since it was the single she released that month. It’s an awesomely feisty and empowering song that’s a devastating ‘fuck you’ to the music industry but it’s also more than that. It’s also a song about celebrating who you are in all your uniqueness, regardless of what other people tell you. I love the defiance in it, the rebellion of choosing yourself: I find it really inspiring. It actually makes me feel more confident and not just in the dance around like an idiot in front of whoever’s around kind of way but in the deep in your gut way. The lyric, “Get used to the sound of my voice” gets me every time because it makes me feel like, somehow, being me is enough. Enough to do the things I want to do, achieve the things I want to achieve, and be the person I’m often scared is out of my reach. And if I ever needed a song like that, it’s this year.
Favourite Lyrics: “Too rock for country, too country for punk / But who said I had to pick either one / Tattoos at the Opry / I could cover ’em up but it’s not me”
11. Carry You by Tim Minchin
In November, I watched ‘Tim Minchin: Apart Together, The Album Live!‘ which was absolutely incredible. I loved it and I loved pretty much every song he played. He had some awesome, super high energy songs and then some quiet, profound ones that just created this beautiful balance for a show, especially one during these times. My absolute favourites were ‘Absence of You,’ ‘Leaving LA,’ ‘I Can’t Save You,’ and ‘Carry You.’ I could’ve chosen so many songs from his new album but ‘Carry You,’ even though I’d heard it before, pre-pandemic, it just really got me when I watched this show. I guess, in the context of the pandemic, it just hits differently. It was very emotional and I was crying by the end of the first chorus.
Favourite Lyrics: “And though we cannot be together / I know that I will carry you, wherever I go / I will carry you / Lord knows / I will carry you / I will carry you”
(Also, shout out to Kalie Shorr’s ‘Lying To Myself.’ It’s an amazing song, with utterly stunning lyrics, including, “I put you up on that pedestal, and damn, you looked incredible, I guess coming down’s inevitable…” and “Picked out all of my favourite things you said, and like a delusional architect, I built you up like a house of cards…”)
12. Show Me Around – Carly Pearce // marjorie by Taylor Swift
I first heard Carly Pearce play this song during the virtual Tin Pan South festival a few months ago and she called it a tribute to busbee (an incredible songwriter, producer, and member of the Nashville community) who died last year. She described how she’d been inspired by something said at his funeral about how of course he had to get to heaven first so that he would be able to show his loved ones around when they eventually arrived and thus a song was born. I’m not religious but it’s such a beautiful song, incredibly sad but also incredibly warm and comforting. I was in tears before the second verse started. As I said, I’m not religious but the loss of loved ones is such a painful thing that sometimes, I wish I was; it’s nice to listen to the song and just pretend for a little bit that I am. It helps.
Favourite Lyrics: “Bet you’re up there right now making plans and writing out / All your favourite places that you just can’t wait to take us / And we’ll get to spend forever talking about whatever / When I get there, promise you’ll track me down / And show me around”
I thought I was done but then, Taylor Swift gave us all the shock of our lives and released her second surprise album in six months, evermore. I’m still absorbing all of the songs but a handful of them stuck out to me straight away, including ‘no body, no crime (feat. HAIM),’ ‘happiness,’ ‘ivy,’ ‘long story short,’ and ‘marjorie.’ I could’ve written about any of these but ‘marjorie’ feels so incredibly special that I think it was probably always going to be that one. It’s so heartbreakingly sad but such a beautiful tribute to her grandmother, especially given that it includes recordings of her grandmother’s opera performances as background vocals. That just gets me every time. Justin Vernon’s backing vocals in the choruses also add a gorgeous depth to the song that only makes it more powerful and emotional. The whole sound world of the song is full and warm and rich without being too busy and it just feels like it fills my entire body.
I love the simplicity of the verses and they feel very much like advice her grandmother might’ve (or would’ve) given her but it’s the bridge that has me in tears every time (these are the ones listed as my favourite lyrics because they’re just so powerful). I relate to that section and the last section (“And if I didn’t know better / I’d think you were singing to me now / If I didn’t know better / I’d think you were still around / I know better / But I still feel you all around / I know better / But you’re still around”) so strongly that it makes me cry every time I listen to it. But even though it’s an incredibly sad song to relate to, there’s something really special and important to have a song like this to relate to, to feel understood in these emotions. I absolutely adore it already and I’m pretty sure it will always have a special significance for me, even though it’s only been out a short time. I wish I could hug Taylor and tell her just how grateful I am to have this song in my life. And I can only hope that one day I can write as good a tribute to my Dad as Taylor has done for her grandmother.
Favourite Lyrics: “I should’ve asked you questions / I should’ve asked you how to be / Asked you to write it down for me / Should’ve kept every grocery store receipt / ‘Cause every scrap of you would be taken from me / Watched as you signed your name Marjorie / All your closets of backlogged dreams / And how you left them all to me”
There are so many songs I could’ve put on this list (and I’m already over my self imposed twelve song limit…) but if I wrote about them all, we’d still be here at the end of 2021. So I’ll stop here. But this has been really good fun. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Here’s a Spotify playlist so that you can check out the songs!
What were your songs of 2020?
Category: covid-19 pandemic, depression, emotions, favourites, mental health, music, video Tagged: 2020, 2020 in songs, 929, atom bomb, california, carly pearce, carry you, caylee hammack, chloe bennet, cmt crossroads, coming back to you, coronavirus, couch, covid-19, depression, eighteen, evermore, favourite lyrics, favourite music, favourite songs, folklore, halsey, hamilton, hamilton the musical, ingrid andress, it's time to go, jeff ward, kalie shorr, kelsea ballerini, kina grannis, lady like, lauren cimorelli, life of the party, little voice, lockdown, lockdown 2.0, lockdown 2020, long story short, lying to myself, lyrics, manic, marjorie, mental health, mental illness, mirrorball, music, my voice, open book: unabridged, pandemic, pandemic 2020, playlist, sara bareilles, show me around, small town hypocrite, songs, songs of 2020, strawberry blonde, taylor swift, the other girl, this is me trying, tim minchin, unreleased, unreleased song, video, wait for it