I’m not sure why I continue to make these annual music posts when no one asks for them. I realize this invites exactly the kind of judgement I hate—but this is not about the public, this is about me. Songs that defined the year for me, whether it be through a period of obsession or a strong personal association to a moment or relationship. It’s been a good way to look back on the year and revisit mental and emotional states from specific points in time. And what a year this has been. None of this is about which songs were better than others, or which monumental shifts happened in the music industry this year. I’m not a critic.
So here’s my 2020 dozen, in rough chronological order of when I listened to them. (Find the Spotify playlist here.
1. Strange Things Will Happen – from Lesser Matters by The Radio Dept.
If any song throws me back to pre-COVID times, the brief, dazzling period at the beginning of this year when it felt like I had finally adjusted to school and every night was an adventure, it would be this song. Strange things could happen, and in a good way. It’s far from a happy-go-lucky song, but there’s a sense of fuzzy comfort that comes from having no expectations, no plan. We can all ignore the fact that it was part of the Fault in Our Stars soundtrack.
Favorite lyric: “strange things will happen / if you let them come around and stick around”
2. Alameda – from Either/Or by Elliott Smith
This song followed me steadily through the beginning of the end. I listened to it blissfully on campus and then on the hastily-scheduled flight back home and through the first few weeks of online school, lying hollow on my bed. The lyrics are uncomplicated and devastating. Some of it too close to home for comfort. Ironically, I’d performed a cover of Between the Bars at an open mic just weeks before coming home, when I was happy with pretty much everything.
Favorite lyric: “nobody broke your heart”
3. Dream Cave – from Dream Cave by Cloud Control
By the time my attention had turned to more uplifting tunes, this song drifted into my playlist and never left, emanating a hefty dose of nostalgia. While not being specifically associated with any memory from school, Dream Cave reminds me so powerfully of one of my friends that it always makes me feel grateful for the people I’ve met. Spoiler alert: the song ends with a nearly 3-minute stretch of something I can only describe as… wet cave ambience? I don’t know why, but it makes me feel held and I love it.
Favorite lyric: “all I could do is dream of you darling”
4. Selfless – from The New Abnormal by The Strokes
I have a running joke with one of my closest friends where I just argue that the Arctic Monkeys/Alex Turner is better than the Strokes/Julian Casablancas and he the opposite, and we quip at each other with stupid points we don’t even believe in anymore until someone finally tells us to shut up because no one cares. It would give him a lot of satisfaction to know that my most-played song of 2020 was from the Strokes’s newest album. I’m not even about to justify why I was so hooked to this song. Maybe it’s the so-simple-but-so-good lyricism, some kind of blinding love and optimism, or the addicting vocal soar. My preference actually shifted to other tracks throughout the year, but I had to put it on the list for the sheer number of times I streamed it.
Favorite lyric: “life is too short, but I will live for you”
5. Poison – from Drugs by The Symposium
There was a weird period this year when I couldn’t stand being home and I moved out to Busan for a month to work on my novel and do online school. This song is very far from the vibe of the town I stayed in; not even a touch reminiscent of the afternoons I spent walking along the beach. But life isn’t a movie and I definitely don’t pretend my Spotify is its soundtrack, so despite the apparent dissonance, this grimy, cigarette-smoking, electric-guitar-dominated tune was at the core of my Busan getaway. I listened to it getting groceries, sitting at the PC bang, walking along the beach, writing at a cafe. The first time I heard the hook, it made me explode. It’s just so addicting. I later discovered that all their songs sound the same, but I didn’t care because it was a sound I enjoyed and none of their other tracks beat Poison.
Favorite lyric: I don’t listen to this song for the lyrics.
6. Phenom – from Temple by Thao & The Get Down, Stay Down
The Phenom experience is incomplete without its music video. But apart from its Zoom choreography being one of the earliest—and most successful—cases of pandemic-influenced art, the song itself radiates pure power. I’ve never quite heard anything like it, and Thao is so cool I proceeded to watch every single video there is of her online. While their other songs can be somewhat focused on Thao, there’s something really raw about the collective energy of Phenom, something that strikes fear and awe, something that claws at the underbelly of our world and rips through it.
Favorite lyric: “everyone’s a tendon / so who you gonna chew”
7. I Know The End – from Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
I’m just another 20-year-old falling at the feet of indie darling Phoebe Bridgers, and I’m not ashamed of it. I couldn’t help but become obsessed with this song—a literal apocalypse anthem, with the gentlest, most poetic telling of the end of the world. Every single line is a gem. It’s whispered, it’s shouted, it’s intimate and epic. This album was released in June and I felt like everything was burning. This song took exactly that energy and cradled it until it became something new. Its breathless escalation is a hot journey, and I never want it to stop.
Favorite lyric: “went looking for a creation myth / ended up with a pair of cracked lips”
8. Drunk in LA – from 7 by Beach House
I ended up with a turntable halfway through this year. 7 was the first record I bought. The physical vinyl cover was so beautiful I couldn’t resist, and even though I’d listened to the entire album already, this song hit different. I’m not a tough crowd when it comes to Beach House songs, but this track in particular is ghostly and lovely and mesmerizing.
Favorite lyric: “memory’s a sacred meat / that’s drying all the time”
9. Exit Music (For a Film) – from OK Computer by Radiohead
I spent a good portion of this year working at an LP bar. (I technically still do, but Seoul’s in lockdown and my break is getting so long I’m not sure I remember all the recipes.) I had five-hour shifts that ended at 2 in the morning and things often got really dull, until a customer would magically request a song I like. Then I would perk up and suddenly become alive to my surroundings. When I first started working there, my manager gave me a single chance to play 5 of my own songs. I wrote down Exit Music (For a Film) on a whim, and when the song amped up halfway through, my skin burned up and dissolved, leaving my muscles bare. I couldn’t believe how emotional and destructive it sounded blasted over huge speakers. Listening to it still brings back the moment, sitting in the corner of the bar, the light dim and yellow, watching sad people get drunk on expensive whiskey.
Favorite lyric: “we hope your rules and wisdom choke you”
10. Goodbye Seoul- from 24: How to Find True Love and Happiness by Hyukoh
I won’t ramble on here. I went to a Hyukoh concert and wrote a whole post on it. They’ve always been one of my favorite Korean bands, but the concert was yet a gamechanger. I love love love their stuff, and while my current favorite is Hooka, this song is probably my favorite out of the ones I heard live. The lyrics touch some really relatable notes—how one can be so sick of Seoul and still so in love with it.
Favorite lyric: “Seoul and me can’t close our eyes”
11. Hollywood- from Hollywood by The Black Skirts
When I first heard this song, I actually took out my phone to check if it was Beach House, even though they’re clearly singing in Korean. My favorite Korean discovery of the year, the Black Skirts has plenty of dreampop tracks under their belt, but somehow nothing comes close to Hollywood for me. It’s dreamy not only in genre but also in content, describing how being with his lover is like living in a movie. He pledges to live in fiction forever and says “we are going to Hollywood and never coming back”. This style is typical of the Black Skirts’ autumn-aesthetic romanticism, but the fact that he acknowledges his own love story’s fictionality makes this song a tad dark for me, not as K-drama-esque as a lot of their music.
Favorite lyric: “붉은 머리칼이 일렁이며 내게 손짓했어요”
12. Paul – from Masterpiece by Big Thief
I directed a play this year, and while I’ll be writing a separate post about that experience, I thought I should acknowledge how much fun I had working with our sound director to put together its soundtrack. After layering music over a play, some songs become so entwined with the scene that it’s impossible to hear it without instantly being knocked back to the image of the stage. This song is absolutely beautiful in its own right, but being the closing song to my show, I can’t help but see a lonely woman on Banpo bridge, imagining comfort into existence, grieving her losses even as she comes to term with them. This song is the flutter of a wing, the flame of a single matchstick.
Favorite lyric: “we were just two moonshiners on the cusp of a breath / and I’ve been burning for you baby since the minute I left”