What a messed up year. The coronavirus pandemic changed everything, especially the music industry. Night clubs shut their doors, and artists were forced to cancel tours and festival appearances, their primary source of income. We’ll be lucky if many of our favorite DJs, promoters, and musicians survive the pandemic, which may or may not end next year.
Despite these difficult circumstances, there was still a ton of great music released in 2020. Starting today, I’m counting down my 100 favorite songs of the year. Lists like this are subjective, but this year more than most. I didn’t get a chance to experience any of these songs in clubs or live settings, so I generally have no idea how other people are responding to them.
Fair warning: You may get tired of me relating every song to the pandemic. I like music that has something to say, whether it’s about the human condition or the world we live in. The pandemic had such a monumental impact on how we lived this year, I can’t help but look for songs that addressed how it made us feel or provided some sort of escape. Of course, the very best songs are those that capture the current zeitgeist and stand the test of time, a lofty feat.
As always, I’m only including each artist once in order to share the love. Let’s go.
100 Erasure – “Shot a Satellite”
Legendary synthpop duo Erasure released their 18th studio album, The Neon, a collection of classic, energetic songs that Vince Clarke said were deliberately intended to be positive and upbeat, something we could all use more of this year. Of the handful of singles supporting the album, “Shot a Satellite” stood out to me for its glitchy electronics and the way the background singers chime in: “Oh-um.” It’s a lotta fun.
99 Chorea Minor – “Trickle of Life”
The singer of German electro band Chorea Minor has a strange, low-key voice that he stretches out with long pauses during the verses. I find it mysterious and mesmerizing. “Trickle of Life” is the catchiest track from his 2020 album, Black White Moon.
98 Jackson VanHorn – “Saturnine”
Jackson VanHorn is an Indianapolis-based artist who makes shimmering dreampop that reminds me a lot of early ’90s alt band Kitchens of Distinction (I was a huge fan). The chorus on “Saturnine,” his breakout song, is a magnificent showcase of his vocal prowess. You can feel him plead the hook: “What if I decide… not to follow.”
97 Nostalgia Deathstar – “Mind Bombing”
Nostalgia Deathstar is a new UK duo that unveiled one track each month in 2020 (they’re going to be collected in a full-length next year). “Mind Bombing” showcases the project’s mission: Create fresh sounds that honor the past. The chorus borrows a melody from the Furs’ “Heartbreak Beat,” but it melds it to a chaotic tempo and some spoken-word elements.
96 White Door – “Simply Magnificent”
UK synthpop legends White Door released their first new album in 37 years (wow, that’s a long time), but it sounds like they picked up right where they left off. “Simply Magnificent” is sharp, polished synthpop that demonstrates why the band has become a cult favorite of the New Romantic period.
95 Fee Lion – “Baby”
The pulsating synth motif that warps its way across Fee Lion’s “Baby” is the kind of dark, sinister energy that makes dancefloors feel like sex dungeons. It’s a shame this didn’t get a chance to blow up the club scene this year, but I fully intend to scribble it down on every DJ request list I encounter next year.
94 New Order – “Be a Rebel”
New Order returned in 2020 with a new single called “Be a Rebel” that they recorded remotely due to the pandemic. It must have worked out because it sounds like a New Order song. The lyrics are a halfhearted plea for non-conformity (“Be a rebel, not a devil”), but at least it’s buoyant and catchy.
93 The Brides of the Black Room (feat. Ginger Khan) – “Ambulance”
If you’re a fan of the original voice of Priest, turn your attention to new collective The Brides of the Black Room. On their debut single, “Ambulance,” that’s Mercury 1.0 himself, Tom Åsberg (AKA Ginger Khan), embuing the vocals with the same sensual sounds he brought to Priest’s first album.
92 Too Dead to Die – “Tropical Gothic”
The divisively named “Tropical Gothic” is from California artist Too Dead to Die. It’s a stimulating feast of a song that kicks things off with a stuttering vocal delivery before launching into a dope, high-energy beat. There’s a massive drop around the three-minute mark. This plays like a rave anthem tinged with dark lyrical subject matter about the monsters who haunt us, even in paradise.
91 The Mystic Underground – “The Fixer”
Brooklyn’s The Mystic Underground combines electropop influences like Erasure and Pet Shop Boys with other electronic elements like high-energy house beats. “The Fixer” is a clever, pulsating number from their 2020 album, Wrapped in Riddles.
90 Cyferdyne – “Breathe Deeper”
Futurepop is alive and well thanks to bands like Cyferdyne who are carrying the torch. “Breath Deeper,” their first new music in six years, is a catchy, arms-flailing thumper chock-full of the trancey arpeggios and uplifting lyrics that cybergoths love.
89 Riki – “Earth Song”
LA-based artist Riki channels ’80s pop divas like Pat Benatar and Bananarama’s Sara Dallin on her self-titled debut album. On the propulsive stand-out track, “Earth Song,” she fires off personal lyrics with break-neck speed and thunderous attitude.
88 Blancmange – “Antisocial Media”
Putting social media on blast is a popular topic among electronic artists (there was a song last year called “Digital Heroin.”) But long-time British synthpop act Blancmange approaches it with a clever twist: He already knows you’re going to dog him on social media, but he insists you wait until he finishes the song.
87 Outsized (feat. Digital Energy) – “Memories”
German synthpop artist Outsized dropped a ton of remixes this year, but for his own single he enlisted vocals from another German project, Digital Energy. It has that melancholic tone I live for, and I dearly love the lyrics of this song: “I’m looking for memories even if they are painful.”
86 SDH – “No Miracles”
“No Miracles” is a hypnotic song from Barcelona band SDH (Semiotics Department of Heteronyms). It has a darkwave, minimal synth vibe that puts them in the same school as bands like Boy Harsher and SYZYGYX, but there are also some techno influences and a killer EBM beat that any other year would have ruled the dancefloor.
85 Fragrance. – “Crisis”
“Crisis” is the first new song since Fragrance.’s stunning debut album (one of my top 25 albums of 2019). It’s got that dark, hypnotizing beat he’s become known for, and it includes a line that could be everyone’s mantra this year: “You will dance your pain away.”
84 ASHES’N’ANDROID – “Lucid Dreams”
German project ASHES’N’ANDROID made its debut at the start of 2020 just before the pandemic broke with “Lucid Dreams,” a catchy number that features freewheeling electronics tumbling all across its futurepop beat. But it’s really all about that smooth voice.
83 Sweat Boys (feat. The Rain Within) – “You Are My Heart”
“You Are My Heart” was briefly available as a free download in 2018 but officially released in 2020. It’s a classic synthpop tune that yet again confirms Sweat Boys’ songwriting chops. The Rain Within’s Andy Deane provides his dreamy voice, which just makes it all the more romantic.
82 Sixth June – “Negde Neko”
Sixth June’s “Negde Neko” is a slow, ethereal dirge with Serbian lyrics that translate to “Somewhere someone is waiting for someone.” It doesn’t get more 2020 than that. The song is achingly beautiful and reminds me a lot of Fever Ray’s first album, which is one of the highest compliments I can offer a piece of music.
81 Hante. – “In Raptures”
French artist Hante. cranks up the gloom in this dark, sexy song. “In Raptures” is one of two new songs from her FIERCE – Remixes collection. Listen to it loud in your headphones, and you’ll discover all sorts of sensual electronic sounds.
80 Gorillaz (feat. Peter Hook & Georgia) – “Aries”
The animated band Gorillaz is most closely associated with hip-hop, but they’ve always flirted with synthpop. It’s most explicit on “Aries,” the third track from their 2020 Song Machine project, in which former New Order and Joy Division bassist Peter Hook gives it an undeniably Hooky bassline. It sounds like classic New Order updated for the modern era.
79 Syrian – “Memory Stream”
Italian electro band Syrian released their last full-length album in 2018, but they returned this year with two new tracks, including the extremely catchy and uplifting “Memory Stream” that features a synthwave-ish guitar solo straight out of the ’80s rock scene.
78 Fused – “Never Let Me Go”
Fused is a massively underrated synthpop act that got its start doing Depeche Mode covers. You can hear their influence in songs like “Never Let Me Go,” especially those Gahan-esque “mm-hmm” vocals. But he puts his own modern polish on the sound.
77 Anders Manga – “Rosaries and Requiems”
“Rosaries and Requiems” is from North Carolina artist Anders Manga’s Andromeda EP, and it is a stone-cold darkwave classic. The beat. That voice. The way it kicks into overdrive on the chorus. The shimmery synth solo at the 3:30 mark. The whole thing conjures gothic grandeur in all the best ways.
76 Pet Shop Boys – “Will-o-the-Wisp”
I am a massive Pet Shop Boys fan, but I thought their 14th studio album, Hotspot, was not their best effort. That said, I love opening track “Will-o-the-wisp” because of the way Neil Tennant conjures up a former Berlin party boy straight out of a Christopher Isherwood novel. And I’m enormously impressed he managed to work U-Bahn station names like Warschauerstraße and Nollendorfplatz into song lyrics.