There’s no way to introduce this list without coming off dizzyingly earnest—good thing sincerity always plays when discussing something one actively enjoys! There was a lot of spectacular music that saved our asses this year. And not just the major label or critically exulted releases that tend to top every year-end list (though, of course, Phoebe Bridgers makes an appearance). In a year where very little felt good, the Jezebel staff managed to find at least some restorative or ruminative music to cry to; that is the say, the best stuff. Here are our picks for 2020's most personal and therefore greatest music releases—all of which offered some solace when we need it most.
Can you make a party song in quarantine? Somehow Charli did, with this banger about restless online shopping, feeling bored out of your mind, and missing “the heat from all the bodies” at parties. Recorded in isolation and released in May, it’s the only piece of art I’ve consumed about being stuck inside this year that doesn’t feel navel-gazing or saccharine (see, that dreadful “Imagine” cover, bad essays by wealthy novelists, and a handful of Zoom-shot TV shows, oh god.) —Hazel Cills
If I’m being realistic Bad Bunny’s entire album YHLQMDLG is what got me through this god-awful year, but “P FKIN R” was a special track because it harkens back to the one perfect thing that occurred this year, adopting my dog Chico. Chico is a rescue from Puerto Rico, where my family is from, so when I picked him up for the first time ever I played “P FKIN R” in the car to welcome him, so he knew he was amongst his own people. It’s our song, really. But aside from reminding me of Chico, who is the most handsome dog in all of Jezebel and likely the world, the aggression and swag that drips off that track has been a balm over sadness. Who has time to be sad when you’re trying to rap in Spanish for four minutes? Certainly not I. —Shannon Melero
In March, I lost my apartment, as a global pandemic crashed down around us, and spared nothing. My husband and I took what we could in a U-Haul, but sold most of our stuff, as we now had no house except his mom’s place on the other side of the world, it felt like. I spent the early days of the pandemic locked up in a room that was not mine, curtains drawn, clothes dirty, hair unwashed. My own substance abuse worsened, and my husband began to binge-drink in secret. Sometimes we screamed out in the street, angry not at each other, really, but all the things it felt like we could not control. Mostly, though, I stayed inside that room and ran from him and the feelings of abject failure that plagued me most nights. In May, I broke. A dream had come to me, of his funeral, and then mine. The next morning I said that if we could not change, at least for ourselves, then we should divorce. I got a therapist, and he pledged to attend meetings. Needing space, I began to take some walks alone each night with his mother’s dog, who we’d been tasked with caring for. It was here that Phoebe Bridgers’s Punisher broke me, again. The dog and I were in a park, right when the sun had dipped below the horizon, and the mountains of Southern California were bathed in golden light. “I’m gonna kill you / If you don’t beat me to it,” she sang. It wasn’t that I felt god in that moment, since I don’t believe in god anymore, but something like god. The grass was damp beneath my feet, and I sat there on my knees for some time and cried until a well-meaning stranger asked if I needed help. I didn’t, not in any way she could provide. I’d already found what I’d searched for. It was enough to keep going. —Joan Summers
So much music saved me in 2020—a year I will remember as the longest period I’ve gone without seeing live music since adolescence, when I wasn’t in control of where I went or when I went there. I’ve found myself ravenous for new music, a heightened sense of hunger for discovery as something of a coping mechanism. I’ve spent more money on physical music media this year than I have ever before—Bandcamp Fridays are to blame—and it’s felt rewarding to support musicians directly, especially when governmental forces have failed to do so, when they, and venues, and music laborers of all kinds, are most vulnerable. But the song that comes to mind most when I think of this year is one I discovered well before isolating in my apartment and learning to wear a face mask whenever I exit it: New Orleans synth punks Special Interest, and their song, “Don’t Kiss Me In Public.” (The title now feels ironic, or prescient, or both.) The music is something of an innovation: techno, industrial, anarcho art punk in one breath, basement hardcore that is a funny, absurd, and self-aware performance. I’ve been scream-singing, “And I laugh / And I cry / Boo hoo hoo / Ha ha” all year, dancing to its folly, and embracing the liberation the song espouses. —Maria Sherman
My favorite music is less a genre and more of a mood, which essentially boils down to “music for when I want to cry.” There was a lot of crying this year, much of which was spent listening to Margo Price’s latest album That’s How Rumors Get Started and specifically the track “I’d Die For You.” —Esther Wang
Six months later, I still cannot fathom the injustice of living in a world where so many cruel and self-interested people made a speedy recovery after contracting covid-19 and John Prine is still dead. This is an old record, released when Prine was 25. I listened to it before 2020 and I will probably be listening to it until I die. But the man had a gift for describing the wells of grief underneath everyday events and an acerbic disdain for political posturing, both sentiments I appreciated this year in particular. Here’s the first song from his self-titled, because if I listen to “Hello in There,” written from the point of view of a forgotten elder, one more time I may die of shame over what we’ve allowed to happen to aging people this year. One of my good friends can’t listen to Prine anymore—it’s too sad, she says, and too on the nose. But I’ve found listening to him cathartic over the last few months, faced with waves of sorrow that are somehow both completely ordinary and totally incomprehensible. Also, this is a good song about forgetting your troubles and getting high. —Molly Osberg
At varying points over the course of this year, I was deeply, selfishly, stupidly sad. Usually when I am this sad, I lean into it, hoping that inhabiting my feelings of sadness will eventually lead me out of that dark well and back into the light. My preferred methods for managing cinematic sadness of this nature is music that makes me cry. Hence, this teensy snippet of a song from Prince’s “Piano and a Microphone,” which is an album that I’d be happy to listen to forever, if it was my only option and even if it wasn’t. There’s a live version of this cover lurking on YouTube, but it doesn’t feel or sound as sad as this little blip, and so I prefer it less. When I am very sad, I want to have the big cry that’s waiting in me and get out. Prince wailing Joni Mitchell lyrics over a plaintive piano does the job nicely. —Megan Reynolds
I spent this year listening largely to alt-country singers like Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, and Rhiannon Giddens, but Tyler Childers’s album, “Long Violent History,” which came late in the year, was undoubtedly my favorite. Almost entirely instrumental, the album is all roots, conjuring up the sounds of Appalachia. The album ends with its title track, a ballad punctuated by Childers’s distinctive voice, that demands listeners consider this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests with empathy. It’s a deceptively simple song that confronts a complicated history, both of the South and of country music. —Stassa Edwards
In some ways, this has been a year of serious regression for me. I got really into fanfiction again, I decided that wearing long sleeve shirts underneath short-sleeved ones was a great idea that should have never gone out of style, and I’m definitely going to rewatch The Inbetweeners before the end of the year. And speaking of The Inbetweeners and regression, I’ve gotten back into a genre that I can only describe as Inbetweeners-Scene-Change-Music. Some may call it Landfill Indie, but whatever the name, you know it when you hear it: Energetic indie rock from the mid-to-late 2000s, often of UK origin. It’s not like I ever stopped listening to this stuff, but it certainly took a bit of a backseat in recent years. Well, I’m back, and ended up listening to The Macabees’s first album Colour It In a ton this year. I listened to it in the car, I listened to it in my apartment while doing chores, I listened to it when I wanted to annoy my boyfriend and dance in front of whatever he was watching on TV… it’s just a fun album that brings me back to a simpler time when my head was a lot emptier and life seemed a little less fucked up. And off that album, “First Love” is definitely the song that really does it for me. It’s romantic, it’s exuberant, it’s bittersweet… it just feels right for me in this moment after a very hectic couple of years. It’s the perfect song to play when I just want to take a load off and appreciate the little things.
Cos nothing’s perfect
So I’ll have to make do
Word. —Ashley Reese
Ken Burns’s latest sprawling exploration of Americana, his eight-part series on the history of country music, technically came out in the fall of 2019. But the soundtrack really became a staple of my listening during the pandemic. With more than a hundred tracks, it’s just a really solid compilation of country music classics, with something for every mood. “Hey Good Lookin’” by Hank Williams makes me laugh; “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” by Charley Pride, I find to be an immensely cheerful song. But the upbeat stuff is—in the famous way of country music—interwoven with a bunch of other songs that’ll reduce you to an emotional wreck in four minutes or less, about crying midnight train whistles and hard times and heartbreak. It’s got several highlights of Dolly Parton’s catalog, a smattering of Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, Eddy Arnold and Roseanne Cash, Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard. It’s all over the place, and nothing could better match my mood these days. Great year for driving around crying to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” —Kelly Faircloth
One thing the pandemic illuminated to me, for the first time in decades of writing about music, is how intertwined my experience with music is with the act of enjoying life. I grew up in dingy clubs and dirty warehouse raves, in teenage punk shows held at local park community houses and VFWs; music has always been inextricable from experience for me, and seemingly mundane daily acts—like listening to music on the subway, the visceral motion and chatter of strangers seeping into the audio—have impacted my writing about it. In a year of isolation, when clubs were closed and basic travel was unsafe, my music listening has also decreased—booty-popping alone in my chair to “WAP” just didn’t hit the same as, say, that time “Drunk in Love” first dropped and an entire bar full of my friends stopped to scream-sing along, an elation I will never forget. Sure, at the beginning of the pandemic I streamed Verzuz and Zoomed into virtual “clubs,” but none of it felt right; in my lowest moments, listening to music has been almost painful, a reminder of what I was missing this year, what I missed so desperately. But this summer, with my windows open as I sweltered over my keyboard at work, a steady stream of music emanating from cars driving by on my busy street was a heartening reminder that life was still out there, that other people still existed. The music, almost always, was either a song from Bad Bunny’s massive hit YHLQMDLG or one from El Androide, the third album by Dominican dembow star El Alfa. These were the songs of the summer for me, sweating alone in my little apartment, waiting for the 7 p.m. essential worker cheer to further remind me that there were still people inside this ghost town. I cried every time. —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
During the fourth quarter of 2020, I realized I had become a vinyl addict. It happened quickly. One day I wasn’t; the next was a mini-Christmas of packages I had ordered myself. And the next. And the day after that. Encouraged by a close friend of mine who is a collector and further enabled by the receipt of a turntable for my birthday, I started buying, well, basically everything that I could think of that was available and not absurdly expensive. The reasons for my purchasing urgency are twofold: clearly, I’m filling a social void with objects, but also, the vinyl market is essentially one of limited editions. It’s hard to determine just how much of any given release will be pressed, and there’s a chance that if you see it today, it might not be available tomorrow, unless you’re willing to pay a mark-up price that is often several times its retail value on the secondary market. For example, the box set of Sade albums that retailed around $170 is now going for about $350 on the Amazon Marketplace. I know because I check everyday in the hope of an affordable copy.
I love that vinyl is hard—in both the tactile and difficult senses of the word. It’s nice to be able to hold music, which has been made so accessible it’s as easy to take for granted as water from a faucet. It’s good to have to focus on what you want to hear, finding the track and dropping the needle at its start. I end up usually listening to full albums—the amount of motion vinyl requires makes shuffle listening less than ideal—and have connected to entire works that I had previously only sampled at best (like early Autechre records and Aphex Twin’s Syro). I have some current stuff (on the plus side is the lovely house full-length from Shinichi Atobe, Yes, and on the negative is a terrible, compressed pressing of the 1975’s Notes on a Conditional Form, which I regret buying). But mostly I’ve been buying the long-term classics of my life, at times hearing parts from them I never had before in this full field of analog sound: Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, Mary J. Blige’s My Life, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Prince’s Sign ‘o’ the Times, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, Aphex’s Richard D. James Album, Janet Jackson’s janet., the self-titled Portishead album. The songs that saved me this year, largely, are the songs that have been saving me now for most of my life. I like it this way. —Rich Juzwiak