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Best of 2020 Music

From the Intercom: The 50 Best Songs of 2020


2020 was a weird year. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to go on about why 2020 stands out as one for the history books, but it’s an important factor that has heavily influenced the way that we consumed music over the past 12 months. In a year filled with tragedy, deranged politics, and a worldwide pandemic, it was hard not to be influenced by the absurdities of our reality. Maybe that’s why you’ll find that this year’s Best Songs List features more songs that recall happier, more cheerful times–arguably more than it ever has in the past (2018, 2019). When outdoor concerts and meetups weren’t an option, music streaming was the escape that we turned to for comfort here at From the Intercom

Selected from a pool of nominations by myself and four other regular contributors to From the Intercom, these 50 songs were the ones that took us to distant faraway lands, chaotic parallel universes, and most importantly, brought us closer together. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as we did.

Li-Wei Chu 

Special thanks to Karolyn Jaranilla, Jacob Ugalde, LeAnn Nguyen, and K T for contributing their favorite songs to the list. Additional thanks to Derrek Chow for designing the banner and to Nicole Tran for additional consulting.

Without further ado, here are From the Intercom’s Top 50 Songs of 2020.


The Macarons Project – “Edelweiss”

“Cozy” is a word that I got way too familiar with, and tried to particularly cling on to this year. This of course led me to exploring more subdued and simple artists and playlists, the highlight of which has been the Indonesian brother-sister duo The Macarons Project.

This June, one of the most tumultuous months of the year, they released their cover of “Edelweiss,” which is one of their few covers to include multiple guests, who (despite quarantine) were able to join their track with some finely tuned post-editing. It may have just been the timing of this release, along with the soft spot I have for both the song and simple acoustic covers, but this is one of the few songs that, for at least a little bit, truly made me feel “cozy”. —Jacob Ugalde


bb sway – “Up in the Air”

“Up In The Air” was the first in a steady stream of 2020 singles showcasing Hong Kong-born, London-based bedroom pop artist bb sway’s growing songwriting and production talents. Here, calming production with hushed vocals serve as gentle reminders to let go of the things you can’t control and be present in the moment. The tranquil chorus (“All up in the air / Without knowing where / Only time will show / We’ll see how it goes”) is a much needed mantra to quell quarantine-induced anxieties. —Karolyn Jaranilla


Louie Zong – “Ghost + Guest”

We’ve written about Louie Zong’s “ghost choir” and “ghost duet” before—you might have even seen his songs or videos going around on Twitter, TikTok, or YouTube—but the long-awaited followup in Zong’s ghost trilogy is finally here. Just in time for Halloween, Zong released a song and animation titled “ghost + guest,” with the ever-familiar ghost buds joining their skeleton friend for a short, silly, and honestly pretty cute tune. 

It may not fit the typical definition of “singles” that were released this year, but Zong seems to be working practically non-stop with both full-time animation work, independently produced albums (of which he releases several of each year, including nine this year alone), plus other fun projects and animatics; with his work having such an iconic impact, it’d be remiss to not include at least one of the many pieces he put out this year. And after all, who wouldn’t love a trilogy about animated singing ghosts? —Jacob Ugalde


.gif – “LET’S GO”

“LET’S GO,” dark electronica duo .gif’s nihilistic party song, is “a toast to the death of purpose and expectation,” but you wouldn’t know it just by listening to the tune. Singer Chew Wei Shan’s icy vocals are refreshingly paired with Nurudin Sadali’s intrepid dance compositions, making for a combination befitting that of the apocalypse. Much like the rest of the songs on their sophomore LP Hail Nothing, “LET’S GO” is great example of the Singaporean duo’s flair for brooding dread and oblivion–and it’s been the perfect year to do it in. —Li-Wei Chu


Tomo Nakayama – “Get to Know You”

If you’ve listened to Tomo Nakayama in the past, you’ll notice that the Seattle-based artist’s newest album, Melonday, is something completely different for the singer-songwriter. Venturing into airy synthpop, the songs on Melonday breathe new life into Nakayama’s work, adding a vibrant kick to his discography. On the album opener “Get to Know You,” Nakayama proves that him and those ethereal synths are a match made in heaven. It’s fitting that the song itself is about starting fresh in a new relationship, paralleling this artistic transformation. Although Nakayama’s acoustic side is always there, “Get to Know You” lets the artist reach uplifting new heights. —Li-Wei Chu


Dominic Fike – “Vampire”

In pop culture, the vampire can stand for many things–class struggle, societal divide, fear of the unknown. But in rapper Dominic Fike’s “Vampire,” the fanged beast takes on a completely new meaning. Could it be a critique of pallid partiers who lounge around aimlessly and are constantly in search of the next high? Could it be a not-so-subtle metaphor for bloodsucking music industry executives? Or is it merely just a descriptive fantasy scenario featuring some monstrous creatures? Regardless of what we might suspect Fike is trying to say, “Vampire” is a mysterious song that remains memorable not only because of its ghoulish theme, but also because of the way he’s able to turn nearly anything into the subject of a haunted jam. —Li-Wei Chu


Sonoda – “Point of View”

Seven-piece meditative pop ensemble is a descriptor that fits surprisingly well for Sonoda. Hazy and bewitching, the music of Sonoda acts as a topical balm that seems to be able to heal any ailment. On “Point of View,” Sonoda’s mesmerizing contribution to Nasturtium Records’ Stay home: COVID-19 Benefit, they’re in the perfect place. Spearheaded by bandleader Lisa Sonoda’s soothing vocals, “Point of View” is a comforting reminder that all bad things eventually come to an end. —Li-Wei Chu


Samica – “Alright”

On “Alright,” R&B singer Samica (Samica Jhangiani) is intimate. Reading more like a romantic conversation than anything else, “Alright” allows you directly into Samica’s confessional headspace, where she’s not afraid to open up and whisper sweet nothings into your ear. “Alright” is a debut that just works due to the emotive power of the Samica’s breathy vocals and buttery smooth voice–making for one of the most affectionate and intimate songs of the year. —Li-Wei Chu



REI AMI is an artist that has been on our radar for a while now, and it’s no wonder why. Blending hip hop beats with equal parts aggression and vulnerability, REI AMI has perfected the art of musical whiplash. Four debut songs and a record deal later (Sony’s Visionary Records), REI AMI made her re-debut this year with “MAC & CHEESE” (this doesn’t count her brief feature on Sub Urban’s “Freak,” which doesn’t quite do her work justice). Chock-full of cheesy puns, sexual innuendos, and of course, that infamous mood swing, REI AMI proves that she’s still having a ton of fun no matter where she’s going in life. MAC & CHEESE is all attitude and gleeful swagger–and we wouldn’t have expected anything less. —Li-Wei Chu


Thanya Iyer – “Please Don’t Hold Me Hostage For Who I Am, For Who I Was”

The songs on Thanya Iyer’s debut album KIND cast a healing spell on you. Throughout its dreamy 42 minute runtime, KIND and its battalion of fluttering instruments draw power from its careful narrator, weaving meticulously layered compositions to throw you into a calming, hypnotizing trance. “Please Don’t Hold Me Hostage For Who I Am, For Who I Was,” the long-winded standout song from the album, is perhaps the best example of the artist’s special brand of improvisational, jazz-like concoctions–soon sweeping you away into a meditative place where all your problems just melt away. —Li-Wei Chu


Sam Rui – “Crew”

Was there a song that was released at a better time than Sam Rui’s “Crew?” The Singaporean R&B artist, who has long been known to write sultry jams, released “Crew” this year to a world that was waking up to a new normal. “Crew” probably wasn’t penned in reaction to the pandemic (in fact, it’s about the singer giving thanks to the people around her as she pursues her music career), but it’s a song that made the world feel closer regardless. “I got my crew so it’s all good / Everybody stick together / Everybody grow together,” Rui sings on the track, becoming a tribute to our fellow human beings amidst a crisis. Especially in a year of Zoom and long distance calls, “Crew” is a gentle reminder of the lasting power of family and friendship even through the toughest of times. —Li-Wei Chu


Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – “Temple”

Though “Phenom” made the rounds earlier this year as “the first great Zoom music video,” the title track off Temple decidedly deserves just as much recognition, if not more, for being such a vulnerable and honest confessional from Thao Nguyen herself. Lyrically, “Temple” recounts the generational and cultural trauma that was ignited from the 1975 Fall of Saigon, starting off the album on a poignant note; however, the western-style guitar intro, along with the steady dance beat that drives the song forward, make the listener acutely aware of the blazing vision that Nguyen recreates and revisits. The seemingly contradicting sound and lyrics confront each other face to face in the alluring and lurid track, as if to say, both then and now, that our American ideals have an ever-lingering price that no one, especially Nguyen, can forget. —Jacob Ugalde


PASSEPIED – “まだら” (Madara)

Japanese five-piece pop rock band PASSEPIED have been in the industry for a long time–in fact, this year’s synonym is the group’s sixth feature length album (not to mention the five or so mini-albums that they’ve released during that same time period). That musical expertise undoubtedly means that all five members work well together, even on songs outside of their usual boundaries like synonym’s lead single “まだら.” It’s a song that doesn’t quite match the tone of the rest of the album (the rest of synonym is chock-full of pop friendly ideas)–featuring structurally interlocking guitar chords and a multitude of moving parts. Surprisingly, lead singer Natsuki Ogoda even lets her usually lively vocals take a backseat and lets the instruments do most of the talking. Though the rest of the album allows the band to quietly slip back into normalcy (and I’m using that term very loosely, because synonym is very good), we’ll always have “まだら” to remember the year by. —Li-Wei Chu


10.4 Rog – “Raindrip Soft (ft. Liv.E)”

Los Angeles-via-Renton producer 10.4 Rog has played a role in many musicians’ projects behind the scenes–lending his skilled touch to each track. But on his solo albums, like For a Tension or the recently released treblemaker, 10.4 Rog is set free and plays with a much more liberated canvas. The producer’s instrumental hip hop work is given the spotlight here, and more often than not you can easily imagine someone flipping each track and turning it into a soft R&B song or forming the base for something more. On the free-wheeling “Raindrip Soft,” one of the standout songs off of For a Tension, 10.4 Rog takes some of the guesswork out of the equation for us. Together with Dallas-based R&B singer Liv.E’s soulful vocals, “Raindrip Soft” is proof of the producer’s magical touch. —Li-Wei Chu


mei ehara – “昼間から夜” (Hiruma kara yoru)

There’s almost a calming effect that comes from listening to Japanese singer-songwriter mei ehara’s “昼間から夜.” As the opening track to her 2020 album Ampersands, “昼間から夜” is a streamlined introduction to what the artist is all about–plucky pop guitar arrangements, a steady voice, and some occasional funky surprises (check out that slide whistle in the track!). Just one listen to “昼間から夜” and you’ll be transported into her groovy world. —Li-Wei Chu



The title of SE SO NEON’s standalone single “NAN CHUN 난춘” can be translated from its Hanja characters as “chaotic spring (亂春),” an apt title for a song about the dizzying heights of love. The glimmering instruments and melodies paint a glowing portrait of bliss, particularly in the gorgeous chorus. When the melody of the song’s intro returns at the end, it builds into a swooning finale that reflects the feeling of fireworks going off in your heart. —LeAnn Nguyen


sunshine blvd. – “Santa Rosa”

Now I’ve never been to Santa Rosa in the Philippines–the namesake of Filipino singer sunshine blvd (Jason Barican)’s childhood home–but I don’t think I would mind making the trip. On “Santa Rosa,” the indie pop singer reminisces about those young carefree days, complete with triumphant trumpets, a bubbling bassline, and an equally sunny personality that’s bound to bring a smile to your face. sunshine blvd lives up to his name–there’s a warm quality here that is few and far between. —Li-Wei Chu


Cayenne – “Drivin’ Away”

Celine Autumn, the lead singer of indie pop band Sobs, has to be one of the more prominent fixtures in the Singaporean independent music scene. Skeptics need not look any further than her latest solo pop project, Cayenne, for proof. Produced by Sobs bandmate Jared Lim, “Drivin’ Away” finds Autumn in a more manic and outgoing state–a world away from the sweet-talking narrator she plays in Sobs. Juggling strident, discordant sounds that hit harder, cut deeper, and register as overwhelmingly more chaotic, “Drivin’ Away” is a sugary hyperpop kiss-off that highlights Autumn’s many talents. —Li-Wei Chu


Alice Longyu Gao – “Rich Bitch Juice”

How is it that no one had made a song called “Rich Bitch Juice” up until this point? This year, hyperpop/violent pop champion Alice Longyu Gao finally took up the challenge, coining the term as “champagne and lime salt, get it?” on one of her many great singles of the year. It’s unsurprisingly on-brand for Gao, whose music swings to emotive, bouncy extremes (two of her other songs released this year are “I <3 Harajuku” and “Yung Piece of Shit Shut Up”). At two minutes of slick production which is further sold by Gao’s Gucci attitude, “Rich Bitch Juice” is a smack-talking song that is making pop fun again. If the term “Rich Bitch Juice” enters common lexicon, you’ll know exactly who to thank. —Li-Wei Chu


Elephant Gym – “Dear Humans”

On their Bandcamp, Elephant Gym describe their latest single as a “letter [written] to the humans who left the Earth when the apocalypse came.” The mournful piano and tense rhythms of the song’s intro fall in line with this apocalyptic mood, but then things take an unexpected turn: the melodies brighten as the instruments pick up into a bouncy groove. Elephant Gym use the energy of their music to paint a picture of a rich and beautiful world even in the absence of humanity. A picture so lush certainly supports the band’s call to “cherish every form of life and every inch of land.” —LeAnn Nguyen


Shinichiro Yokota – “Detectors”

Your first encounter with Soichi Terada might actually have been with Tokyo-based electronic producer Shinichiro Yokota, when “Do It Again” was featured in Terada’s 2015 LP Sounds from the Far East. It would be easy to mistake the work as coming from either producers as the two frequently collaborated through much of the 1990s and had “Do It Again” incorrectly credited to Terada in a 2013 YouTube rip.

Following 2019’s “I Know You Like It,” 2020’s “Detectors” finds Shinichiro Yokota amidst a resurgence in his career. The single is a slight departure from his familiar house/disco works and has a sound leaning slightly towards 80s electro house. It avoids falling into rose-tinted nostalgia because it carries this forward movement in both motion and time; with a brooding bassline pushing such gestures for the former and a sparkling interlude propelling the latter. Not to mention, it’s still fantastic for reenacting scenes from Drive if you’re so inclined. Karolyn Jaranilla


BUMPER – “Black Light”

Despite staying busy with an upcoming autobiography, Michelle Zauner (of Japanese Breakfast fame) surprised us all this September with a brand new EP, pop songs 2020, in collaboration with Crying’s Ryan Galloway. Rebranding themselves as BUMPER, the duo finds their identity with modern takes of 80s city pop, with high quality drum and bass samples from another day and age that make the whole EP sound unstuck in time.

Driving synths, upfront harmonies, and playful quirks immediately provide a late-night drive kind of vibe with “Black Light,” setting us in the intermediate, liminal space of being neither now nor then, neither today nor tomorrow–whilst still focusing our energy on where we are in the present. For anyone who’s a fan of either artists, or even resurgences of 80s city pop styles in general, this song is a must-listen. —Jacob Ugalde


박혜진 Park Hye Jin – “Can you”

There’s a hypnotic quality to Park Hye Jin’s EP How can I–a side-effect of the DJ’s heavy use of repetition. Both instruments and vocals on “Can you” loop ad-infinitum through the song, with Park asking “Can you be my baby?” over a driving beat. A more discordant form of repetition comes later when Park clarifies, “I love you, but I fucking hate you.” Perhaps there is no better way of portraying the disorienting, uncertain side of being in love than by this combination of tranquilizing fog with jarring punctuation. —LeAnn Nguyen


Benny Oyama – “Hazy River”

Like many of the best folk songs, Benny Oyama’s “Hazy River” takes you to a place of tranquility. As Oyama, our careful storyteller, narrates a vivid traipse through nature, you can start to imagine the picturesque setting that he’s describing–the rush of water, the hazy atmosphere, the titular river. Set amongst a backdrop of a flurry of strings from his guitar, Oyama lulls you into another place and another time–a paradise far, far away from whatever reality that we’re living in right now. —Li-Wei Chu


NIKI – “Plot Twist”

On her ambitious debut album MOONCHILD, R&B princess NIKI (Niki Zefanya) was never going to fail. Here, she plays with a lot of ideas that really stand out–reinventing herself through the worldbuilding “Switchblade” and flirting with chaotic sounds on “Tide,” for example. But on “Plot Twist,” NIKI steps into the familiar battlefield of love, diving headfirst into another romantic subplot. NIKI, whose music was always driven by the artist’s careful (and sometimes very brash) way of articulating young, apprehensive feelings, is right at home on “Plot Twist.” “Met every comma, every question mark / Bored of how all the chapters start / But you feel like a brand new arc,” she sings, signalling not only the start of a new relationship, but also a new chapter in her craft. —Li-Wei Chu


CHAI – “Donuts Mind If I Do”

CHAI first exploded onto the music scene with their high energy pop-punk, propelled by breakneck rhythms and shouty vocals. This year, they’ve explored a more subdued sound on their singles, including their latest release “Donuts Mind If I Do.” This new style gives CHAI a better chance to showcase their melodic gifts, and nowhere is that more evident than in the soaring chorus that crowns this song. —LeAnn Nguyen


H.E.R. – “Hold On”

By now, R&B artist H.E.R. (Gabi Wilson) should be a household name. Two Grammy wins and a few hundred million streams later, H.E.R. has become one of those rare artists whose meteoric rise shows no signs of stopping. Even during a year that’s been less than ideal (to say the least), she’s still out there pumping out soulful ballads complete with top-notch R&B production and powerful messages. But on “Hold On,” H.E.R. reminds us why she’s such an unstoppable force. With little more than a barebones guitar and a soft pulsing beat, “Hold On” effortlessly shows off the singer’s dynamic vocals which ache with emotion. This is what she does best: turning even the smallest feelings into giant sweeping motions. H.E.R. makes every one of her words count–making each syllable feel universal. —Li-Wei Chu


James Ivy – “Yearbook (ft. Instupendo, Harry Teardrop)”

One thing that I didn’t see coming with the advent of SoundCloud and the Internet is the proliferation of emo rap-rock boy bands into the music scene. Although James Ivy and fellow musicians Instupendo and Harry Teardrop aren’t an official group (“officially” anyways–there’s a lot of cross pollination between him and his fellow musicians), on “Yearbook” they gel together into a cohesive unit worthy of name recognition. The three trade verses with jittery passion, each adding an equally spunky charm to the song. Boy band or not, the three have made an emo-rap ode to a distant, fading memory that anyone can step into.  —Li-Wei Chu


AUDREY NUNA – “damn Right”

If I had to pick one artist who is bound to blow up in the next few years, my money would be on AUDREY NUNA. The rapper formerly known as Audrey only has a few singles to her name, but every one of those songs in any other year would be blasting from house parties non-stop. For a perfect example of her hip-hop tasting, house-shaking expertise, look no further than the artist’s mind-bending single “damn Right.” Featuring hard-hitting bass, an effortlessly cool persona and sharp, tongue-twisting wordplay, “damn Right” shows AUDREY NUNA at her best. —Li-Wei Chu


Summer Soul, Charming Lips – “JUNKFOOD”

In perhaps one of the more horrifying examples of excessive mukbang ever, the music video (and cover art) for Korean R&B singer Summer Soul is striking due to its messy visuals and musical mismatch. While the independent singer-songwriter delicately sings over a low-key sunny beat, “JUNKFOOD” is a chastising look at toxic friendships. Shrugging away “superficial friends” (the junk food in question, if you will) for more lasting ones, Summer Soul charms on her latest single despite the visual mess. —Li-Wei Chu


Soft Blue Shimmer – “Cherry-Cola Abyss”

In their interview with us, Soft Blue Shimmer laid out their goals for debut album Heaven Inches Away: “perfect melodies, perfect lyrics, perfect parts.” First single “Cherry-Cola Abyss” hits these lofty aims. Laden with hooks throughout its run, the song keeps you engaged while cloaking you in its warm, gauzy instrumentals. One could imagine feeling a similar way when falling into the sweet abyss described by the lyrics. —LeAnn Nguyen


Haiku Hands – “Onset (ft. Mad Zach)”

Are we set for an electro-pop revival yet? Although the sounds on Australian dance pop band Haiku Hands’ (Claire Nakazawa, Beatrice Lewis, Mie Nakazawa) self-titled debut flirts with EDM and faintly reminds me of late 2000s pop production, the trio have made their sound their own. The best example of such is “Onset,” a rave-pop song that is sure to burn up whichever dancefloor it hits. Together with Mad Zach, Haiku Hands and their cheerleader chants will make you work up a sweat, no matter where you’re blasting it. —Li-Wei Chu



The stand-out single from NAYANA IZ’s debut EP Smoke + Fly, “TNT,” is a cold and calculated call-out exposing relationships with ulterior motives. Its unapologetic incorporation of mixing classical Indian music with hard-hitting underground electronic beats makes it an empowering acknowledgement of Nayana’s personal struggles and cultural identity. NAYANA IZ is bound to blow up soon with “TNT” and we can’t wait to hear what she’s got next. Pun intended. —Karolyn Jaranilla


Chippy Nonstop, dj genderfluid – “Straight to Hell”

If you do a quick Google search of Toronto-based DJ, rapper, and activist Chippy Nonstop, you’ll find articles of her publicized deportation from the United States. After enduring the hell of those experiences and establishing Intersessions (a workshop series for femme, and non-binary identifying artists), Chippy Nonstop re-emerges with “Straight To Hell,” a defiant and electrifying collaboration with dj genderfluid. —Karolyn Jaranilla


sogumm, OHHYUK – “yayou hoi”

How do you classify a song like “yayou hoi?” On the one-off single, rapper sogumm (one of the members of the collective Balming Tiger), and indie rocker OHHYUK (of HYUKOH), simply let their imaginations run wild together. “yayou hoi” somehow works not only as a loose duet between two artists from vastly different fields, but also as an exercise in creative collaborations. Dipping into Korean R&B, hip-hop, and traces of straight-up psychedelia, “yayou hoi” is a major achievement from across the musical spectrum. —Li-Wei Chu


Mother Tongues – “Eternity”

On Toronto-based five-piece band Mother Tongues’ winding epic “Eternity,” there’s a sense that you’re slowly being sucked into another dimension. Dripping with 70s rustic nostalgia, this psychedelic acid trip almost seems plucked straight out of another timeline. There’s a lot at play here that makes it work–thanks to Charis Aragoza’s fuzzy vocals, Lukas Cheung and Konrad Karczewski’s rustic guitarwork, Nick Kervin’s drumming heartbeat, and Hannah Bussiere Kim’s additional vintage keys. Together, the five members of Mother Tongues evoke a sense of carnal mysticism on “Eternity” that few other songs can truly achieve. —Li-Wei Chu


Ragamuffs – “Used to Be”

Though the term “indie” is thrown around a lot these days to describe a more general aesthetic, Honolulu-based Ragamuffs are one of the few bands that can truly call themselves indie, in terms of both sound and management. After the success of their Kickstarter-funded debut album Achy Luminescence last year, they’ve continued to make content on their own terms, releasing their own self-produced music videos, covers, and online concerts on YouTube throughout 2020. And to be honest, that makes their “indie” title pretty well deserved.

Though “Used to Be” is their only widely released single from this year, the classic feel-good beach rock vibe permeates throughout, with vintage reverb and high-pass filter effects blending the sounds together. With a song this full of nostalgia and good vibes, you’ll be yearning for summer days and pastel beaches all over again. —Jacob Ugalde


Priya Ragu – “Good Love 2.0”

Tamil-Swiss musician Priya Ragu may have only released one song to her name this year, but it’s already lived through many iterations. After being remixed three times by none other than Little Dragon, Joe Goddard, and Honey Dijon, “Good Love 2.0” is a breezy R&B/house-inspired pop song that will inevitably show up in many a late night DJ set. However, none of those remixes quite reach the heights of the original–though each of them have their moments. Anchored by Priya’s warm vocals and produced by none other than her own brother Roshaan Ragu, “Good Love 2.0” is proof enough that the Ragu siblings have a true gift for making head-bobbing tunes. If “Good Love 2.0” is the first taste of the artist’s future endeavors, consider us hooked. —Li-Wei Chu


Ana Roxanne – “Suite Pour L’invisible”

Los Angeles-based ambient musician Ana Roxanne makes music that is quiet, contemplative, and filled with empty space. On last year’s ~~~ EP and this year’s follow up album Because of a Flower, Roxanne is able to manipulate silence and small moments into full-length music, truly conjuring an atmosphere that rings with a hollow beauty. “Suite Pour L’invisible,” the seven-minute first single off of Because of a Flower, creates that blank canvas and stretches it out so that it becomes wide, expansive, and ultimately all-enveloping. It’s truly a feat to make ambient music that is able to so carefully balance simplicity with submerging soundscapes, but Ana Roxanne is the one who does it best. —Li-Wei Chu


Ok Cowgirl – “Get Gone”

The term “dream rock” hasn’t yet become common vernacular, but perhaps Ok Cowgirl’s “Get Gone” could help shed a light on why it should be. In the band’s very first single, “Get Gone” marries a spacey dream pop production aesthetic with the rougher, robust sounds of indie rock–all the while skewering the idea of empty consumerism and societal expectations with a sneering attitude. As Lavigne sings about a protagonist who tries to escape from this vicious cycle (“She’ll daily turn their heads but when / She’s all alone in bed she thinks / God I’ve gotta get gone / Had enough upper echelon”), you can feel her resolve in guiding others towards a healthier mentality. In a world where conspicuous consumption runs wild, maybe Lavgine’s words are something that we all need to hear right now. —Li-Wei Chu


Shallow Levée – “永和” (Dear Friends)

The best friendships can feel effortless, so it’s fitting that Shallow Levée’s “永和 (Dear Friends)” is such a breezy slice of guitar pop. The single from their debut album 不完整的村莊 (The Village) moves cleanly from one hook to another, together evoking the simple pleasures of being with friends. The fact that Shallow Levée makes it all seem so easy is a testament to their skill as musicians–it takes real effort to sound so effortless. —LeAnn Nguyen


Joe Wong – “Dreams Wash Away”

Fans of The Midnight Gospel, which came out on Netflix earlier this year, might recall the powerful and overwhelming emotions that ended the first season, along with the finale’s end credits song that follows the protagonist, Clancy, as he drifts into the mysterious unknown. That finale song was part of Joe Wong’s album, Nite Creatures, which is just as emotional a journey as the series it’s featured in.

Wong typically works in background music for other films and TV shows, but this song holds a special place in his heart: as he relates the lyrics to his deeply personal affair of slowly losing his father to a major stroke back in 2010. With this track’s hypnotizing chord progressions, soothing velvety vocals, and powerful themes, “Dreams Wash Away” is a song that still leaves me on the verge of tears after every listen-through–if I can even get that far. —Jacob Ugalde


Strawberry Generation – “I Know It’s Sad But It Must Be Done”

Strawberry Generation’s debut album Afloat is replete with buoyant guitar pop, but album closer “I Know It’s Sad But It Must Be Done” stands out with its complex portrayal of hope. A duet between the band’s two vocalists Luk Yean and Valerie Zhu, the song is carried by a guitar line that is at once joyous and tinged with a hint of melancholy–appropriate for a song about looking toward a brighter future despite gloomy circumstances. In a year marked by sadness for so much of the world, it’s comforting to hear such a realistic vision of optimism. —LeAnn Nguyen


Lvyan – “Take Me Away”

Released at the beginning of summer, Chinese musician Lvyan’s shimmering “Take Me Away” had all the makings of a great summer song. Featuring big brass instrumentals, an incessantly catchy soulful chorus, and (not to mention) a zither(!) that elevated the song to new heights, “Take Me Away” was quite the debut for the 18 year old jazz-pop musician. There’s a heat here that stifles its listener with good vibes and an even better time. Had there been a summer this year, “Take Me Away” would’ve been blasting all around the big city. Perhaps next year we’ll be able to make up for lost time.  —Li-Wei Chu


beabadoobee – “Sorry”

Beatrice Laus has come a long way from the bedroom pop of her earliest releases as beabadoobee. One of the best examples of her glow-up as an artist is “Sorry,” a single from her debut album Fake It Flowers. Featuring swirling guitars and strings building up to an explosive climax of sound, “Sorry” sounds leagues away from the simple vocals and guitars of songs like “Coffee.” Despite her sonic upgrade, however, one thing has remained consistent across beabadobee’s work: her ability to craft compelling and memorable hooks. —LeAnn Nguyen


Luna Li – “Afterglow”

From the first moment you press “play” on “Afterglow,” an immediate rush of strings, piano, and drums washes over you, teleporting you to the magical fairy fountain of Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist Luna Li. The sweeping, swelling track is one of her standout singles this year (even being performed at the virtual 88rising ASIA RISING FOREVER showcase), but if we could nominate any of her equally impressive and charming insta-jams from this year, we definitely would.

Luna Li has described her brand of music as “the moment you hang suspended between dream and haziness,” but even those words barely do “Afterglow” justice: every note feels meticulously placed, every string delicately plucked, as if to bring you into a wondrous dreamscape that everyone is familiar with, yet unique to every dreamer. With “Afterglow,” you can let all your worries fade away, without getting lost in the enchantment. —Jacob Ugalde


Shadow Community – “Restless Song (동요)”

After releasing folktronica masterpiece Crumbling (무너지기) in 2018, the enigmatic artist behind Mid-Air Thief dropped single “Restless Song (동요) / Halcyon’s Coffin (할시온의 관)” for a new side project, Shadow Community, in the last week of 2019. “Restless Song” utilizes familiar atmospheric synths from older works while adding in guitarwork reminiscent of Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen to concoct an enchanting track bubbling with life. 

The first part of “Restless Song” is lyric-heavy. An unnamed vocalist explores a restlessness in mystery, pondering at a “faded truth left in hypocrisy,” “thickening wishes in shades that won’t come” and questions “What could I do with clearly revealed truth?” (translation from ArtBlakey). The bulk of the remaining three minutes is a lively instrumental inhabited by crashing cymbals, sharp hand claps and rising harmonies. —Karolyn Jaranilla


Ichiko Aoba – “Seabed Eden”

Throughout her career, Ichiko Aoba has proven that not much is required to reach the heights of beauty: all she needs are her plaintive vocals adorned by sparse guitar and piano. While her latest album Windswept Adan explores a richer instrumental palette, standalone single “Seabed Eden” is another exemplary instance of Aoba’s ability to create a moving experience from the barest of arrangements. Aoba’s voice intertwines delicately with the backing piano, but the strong melodies of both never waver as this spellbinding song unfolds. —LeAnn Nguyen


Pinkshift – “Rainwalk”

It’s not often that a band captures our attention the way that Pinkshift did this year. With only a few songs to their name, the Baltimore-based pop punk band rightfully soared into the scene on the sheer power of their gritty bangers alone. On their biggest hit (thus far), “i’m gonna tell my therapist on you,” Pinkshift introduced themselves with a flurry of rage and a sarcastic attitude that stings. However, it was on their next release, “Toro” / “Rainwalk” where they were able to hone in on their craft. Lead singer Ashrita Kumar is an absolute electric force as she tears down a liar, helped along by her bandmates’ turbulent, fervent playing styles (Paul Vallejo, Myron Houngbedji, Erich Weinroth). “Rainwalk” is a perfect storm of emotions: dynamic, unbridled, and of course, catchy as hell.

It’s easy picturing Pinkshift dominating a lit-up arena, shredding it up track after track. With the power of all of the songs that they’ve released so far, it won’t be long until that happens. Ladies and gentlemen, your newest obsession awaits. —Li-Wei Chu


Rina Sawayama – “XS”

Where do we even start with “XS”? In many ways, it is the pop anthem of the year—anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, and yet wholly unique, making it the perfect song to listen to while so much of the world is (sometimes quite literally) going up in flames. The track itself is filled with so many seemingly random elements and influences–from metal guitar, to orchestral strings and timpani, to early 2000s teen pop vocalizations, to traditional Japanese Min’yō. But their seemingly disparate chemistry complements each other so well that it perfectly encapsulates all the emotions from this year: the anger, the hurt, the irony, the maddening desire to just be careless and dance again, and the frustration towards the overwhelming incompetency of those designated to save us. “XS” is grandiose, cathartic, and livid with energy, brutally showing us the rose-colored apocalypse we’re all living through. —Jacob Ugalde

Check out our Favorite Songs of 2018 and Favorite Songs of 2019 while you’re at it!


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