Music has maintained itself as one of the most reliable sources of comfort, escape and expression within life, and what a time to need it. 2020 has been a tumultuous year at best and downright depressing at worst, from global pandemics and financial depression to pervading instability and just trying to adult under the circumstances. Within all the drama, music has been a saving grace. Month after month, artists were dropping amazing bodies of work to cry, dance, escape or just vibe to and we’re here to explore just over 50 of favorite picks from the last year. For the purposes of this article, we’ve kept the choices to one selection per artist in a leading role. I stress that these are personal favorites and not necessarily what we think are the most representative songs of the year. We hope that you find some new gems to get lost into as the holiday season sets in. You can read part 1 here.
Disclaimer: For the purposes of this article we’ve kept the choices to one selection per artist in a leading role with the exception of work in a group or collaborative effort. If an artist dropped both solo work and group/collaborative work in the same time span, we’ve counted those efforts as separate, ie Seba Kaapstad, The Scorpion Kings etc…
No. 30 – 11 [Listed alphabetically, not in ranking]
Be Right Back – Marcus Harvey
I Am Marcus Harvey is one of the most sonically cohesive projects I’ve heard this year; seamlessly infusing neo-soul, hip-hop and R&B into a singular listening experience. My choice for this list is one of the steamier efforts on the projects that finds Harvey cooing a series of sweet nothings at his current partner; Be Right Back. Be Right Back is a sensual experience in which Harvey declares his affections and intentions with his current romantic partner as he asks her “Can we be lovers?/Can we make this last forever?” The song’s premise is simple and really shines in its execution. The composition is slinky as it it maintains a mid-tempo groove. The lyrics are poetic, forward and direct. Harvey’s vocal performance is measured in it’s conversational tone. The vocal production does wonders in intensifying the song’s carnal urges from the stacked cooing to the various vocal effects that pepper the song; like the lowered “can we make it last forever” or the more spectral layer that creeps in as he delivers the “That my passion is driven by my obsession…” Be Right Back is an infatuated affair that asserts Marcus Harvey’s position as a premier new-age crooner.
Blah Blah – Tyson S.T featuring Miles [produced by DoouShii]
Next on this list is a frenetic rap banger from the artist I probably listened to the most this year, Tyson S.T. Tyson S.T has had a dynamite year releasing tongue-twisting raps, heartrending bars and aggressive bangers, establishing himself as a consistent source of entertaining hip-hop. Blah Blah is a track that finds him playing on his cockier edges and man what a joyride it is. Backed by an insidious production with relentless bounce, Teli and Miles muster all the disrespect they have for their adversaries in this braggadoccious take down and take it to thrilling heights. Miles sets the tone with a blistering verse where he compares himself to a gorilla in the jungle; ready for attack and swiftly dodging the venom that snakes try throw at him. Teli confidently takes over and packs his verses with more punchlines than a local sitcom episode; floating between disses, aspirational gassing and personal storytelling. Holding it together is a stadium-ready, audience interactive chorus that begs you to not be disrespectful as you sing-along to it; really… how do you say “no… no, you don’t listen – fah fah” with a shred of decency. Blah-Blah is that injection of brash, reckless energy I go to to get riled up.
Call Me – Manana [produced by Noble]
Call Me is the lead/opening track off of Manana’s concept EP, In The Beginning was The End, which tracks a relationship cycle in reverse; starting with it’s tumultuous end as it peels back to it’s fluttery beginning. Call Me is the heartbreaking end that is seething with pain, paranoia, questions and bargaining. Backed by a progressively moody production, Manana launches into the song irritated by the consistent cycle of drama that surrounds his relationship, detailing how some of the issues have been pervasive for years. Call Me paints a picture of a relationship on its teetering hinges and lacking effective communication as expressed in the chorus’ central phrase “Call me. Why don’t you call me instead of calling me out?” Manana provides a captivating performance that intensifies from irritated to accusatory before climaxing into pure heartache as he reminisces on happier times and trying to figure out how things got so astray. Call Me really delivers on the heartbreak. The song is an emotional train-wreck and a sure-fire to get you stewing in your feels.
Listen to Noble’s Next Gen Greats podcast on the process behind In The Beginning was The End here.
Duffle Bag – Poptain featuring Anita Jaxson, Kanter Di Janter, McKampton and Prosper Fi Ril [produced by Leekay and Bleqboi]
We’ve previously done a review of this song which you can read in full here. Duffle Bag is a relentless slice of dancehall that finds Poptain and the crew on the prowl for enough money to get them out of their current poverty.
I Just Might – Hunter Rose featuring ECHLN [produced by ECHLN]
We’ve previously done a review of this song which you can read in full here. I Just Might is a song that pushes Hunter Rose’s mellow sound into more uptempo spaces, bringing forth a more playful energy to this chanteuse. Conceptually, the song is a flirtatious jazz-soul romp that finds Hunter Rose at a party with her girls waiting for a guy she’s feeling to make his move on her.
KARMAKOLLEKT – popsnotthefather [produced by 808x]
popsnotthefather [sic] is aching for a fight in our next pick, the club-ready slice of R&B that is KARMAKOLLEKT [sic]. Centered around a hook that reads “I know the truth, your friends been talking and you been lying. What you been hiding? You think I don’t know what you’re doing tonight?”, the track finds popsnotthefather telling off his current romantic interest. Coming in at a brisk 01:43, KARMAKOLLEKT gets right to the point and wastes no line of its delivery. 808x provides a moody yet groovy soundscape and pops really floats right on it, infusing his lyrics with rapid-fire delivery and a taunting demeanor that really sells his disposition. It’s a toxic, messy, salacious affair that finds popsnotthefather determined to leave with the upperhand; a fun kiss-off anthem meant to bring out your inner-petty.
Konke – Seba Kaapstad [produced by Sebastian Schuster]
This is another one of my contenders for songs to lead in 2021 and one of the most infectious songs I’ve heard this year. Konke is a refreshing blend of jazz, soul and hip-hop that finds Zoe Modiga and Manana riffing on all the things they want with carefree abandon. If I’m being honest, I’m co-opting at least half of them for my 2021 affirmations; I’m talking sitting on the Great Wall of China, chilling in Peru, house parties with my friends (read: post-Corona) and all that money. Seba Kaapstad want it all and convincingly sell it with increasingly winning charisma. The back and forth between Manana and Modiga in Konke‘s bridge/pre-chorus is shamelessly irresistible as Modiga playfully affirms how much money loves her whilst Manana demands his money, meat and dumplings. Backed by a lush, soulful production Konke is a feel-good laid back experience that warrants multiple replays to relish in its giddiness.
Letsibolo Latsatsating – Espacio Dios
We’ve previously done a review of this song which you can read in full here. Lestibolo Latsatsing is an open act of rebellion that finds Espacio Dios expressing his individuality and claiming a space for himself as an outcast, outside the realms of cool kid culture. The song is a dynamic banger that feels like a hard-earned yet carefree moment in the sun.
Longtime – Wizkid featuring Skepta [produced P2J]
It seems like we’re on a roll with feel-good music here, so let’s keep it going with this sensual pick from Wizkid’s incredible Made In Lagos. Longtime finds Wizkid and Skepta rekindling with a former love-interest after not seeing them for a long time; and it is soooo smooth. From the shimmering key-chords to the light percussion, the song’s production is a lush, laid-back vibe that begs you not to sway to it. Skepta kicks things off with a cool swagger before Wizkid’s charm sets in. This song is just a good time, I don’t know what to tell you.
Mali Eningi – Big Zulu featuring Riky Rick and Intaba Yase Dubai
At point of publication, this ode to money is the biggest song on South African airwaves; and is threatening to be the song of the summer; it’s inescapable. Big Zulu enlists the help of Riky Rick and Intaba Yase Dubai to deliver this aspirational piece of hip-hop that finds them wanting a lot of money and the various joys it could give them. Mali Eningi is centred around a catchy sing-along chorus as Zulu and Rick trade verses; both having fun with it. Big Zulu brings us into the world with a leading verse that finds him flexing the inkabi lifestyle; with a smug flair whilst Riky Rick expands it to include his lavish desires. It’s escapism and fun aspirational content solidly held together by Dubai’s spirited chorus delivery.
Masupa – Kabza De Small featuring Focalistic, Bongza and Madumane
We’ve previously done a review of this song which you can read in full here. Kabza De Small provides a relentless and propulsive yanos production that sets the stage for Focalistic to express how untouchable he feels, and Focalistic delivers in spades. If you want a lession in how to feel invincible, Focalistic offers up multiple courses in this monster jam.
Promising – Thato Saul [produced by Zarro]
We’ve previously done a review of this song which you can read in full here. Thato Saul is one of the most engrossing and singular rappers currently out there, for me right now. Backed by a soulful production, Saul launches into a song that finds him contrasting all the things he’s promised himself and consolidating that against the reality he lives in; a reality he describes as soul-crushing.
rock with me – Moonga K. featuring Giuiliette Price [produced by Aqeel Williams]
We’ve previously done a review of this song which you can read in full here. From Moonga K.’s an ode to growth pt. 1, it’s rock with me (stylized in lower caps). The song plays out like a conversation between Moonga K. and Giuliette Price who are on opposite ends of a situationship that’s getting more emotionally intimate. It’s a classic duet that bares a similar approach to Gotye and Kimbra’s Somebody That I Used To Know and like most situationships I know, it doesn’t resolve itself clearly.
Scared – Mass The Difference featuring PDOT O
Returning to the train of more pensive hip-hop selections, our next pick is an existential trip from one of the smoothest tones in the game, Mass The Difference. Scared find Mass The Difference teaming up with PDOT O in a song that explores some of their fears; which for both are intrinsically linked to their relationship with music. Mass recounts the tale of his come-up as he grapples with the space his success has brought him to whilst P-DOT O questions the effect his ego and music could be having on his listeners; after taking aim at his adversaries. Held together by an existential yet catchy chorus, Scared is classic-sounding hip-hop in which both acts deliver solid and engaging storytelling to get lost in.
Talk About It – Filah Lah Lah [produced by Mike Kalombo]
Filahsofy is one of my favourite contemporary R&B records to have come out this year. A love record that takes us through Filah Lah Lah’s different states within romance, from infatuation to uncertainty and arguments. Talk About It finds a smitten Filah on a quest to solidify the state of her relationship with her romantic interest as she asks ‘what are we?’ Filah starts off infatuated and really sells how taken she is by this guy but is quickly sent reeling as she finds out that he may not be at this same stage that she’s feeling. The song is littered with these spoken-word sections that highlight her inner-thoughts as she’s faced with the reality that this relationship may not be that serious for him, despite having introduced him to her mother. Backed by shimmering and soulful production that often remains pensive, Filah Lah Lah is falling and the journey is relatably chaotic as she tries to gather herself within the uncertainty of the situation.
Read another Filah Lah Lah breakdown here.
This Feeling – Benny Afroe & Ami Faku [produced by Lastee]
Benny Afroe and Ami Faku keep us within the feels with the steamy slice of afro-soul that is This Feeling. This Feeling is a duet that finds Afroe and Faku as romantic interests who have decided to spend the night together. Faku leads the interaction as she pulls Afroe aside for a chat, where they tell each how they feel. The production is understated, a warm and cozy backdrop that gives the couple enough room to shine and sparks fly. Ami Faku’s vocal performance is a sensual croon whilst Afroe plays a coy persona. This Feeling is a song that was made to be slow-danced to. Its chorus is irresistible as Faku gives a simple directive that Afroe obliges: “come closer, listen, come closer. Come here”.
Read our review of previous Benny Afroe work here.
Thunda Thighs – Moonchild Sannelly
Moonchild Sannelly is the epitome of exasperation in the relentless banger that is Thunda Thighs. Sannelly is tired of broke Johannesburg men and is fleeing on the search for something else. Packed with her suitcase and on the road, she stops a man for a lift as she tells him her tales of woe. Backed by a propulsive amapiano production, Sannelly unleashes an infectious tirade that grows increasingly catchy the more the song develops. The chorus is a repetitive description of the current state of her body that feels like a call-to-arms for the dancefloor. Thunda Thighs is an entertaining rallying cry that is signature Sannelly fun.
Trustworthy – Miles featuring Tyson S.T & Roho [produced by DoouShii]
Miles and Tyson S.T seem to be a winning combination for me, as this is their second appearance on this list but this time with Miles taking the reigns as lead in Trustworthy. The husky-toned rapper enlists the help of Teli and Roho in this song that finds him reeling from a fractured relationship that he’s still yearning for whilst stewing on the motivations that keep him moving. Miles is in a considered state of anxiety, intensified by the statement that opens and runs throughout the track that reads: “I can feel your energy and don’t know who to trust”. His vocal performance is emotional and engaging but still manages to pack in some entertaining take downs of his foes. The chorus is truly one of my favourites of the year. It finds Tyson S.T and Roho cooing sweet nothings on what they’ll do to make amends as they seek refuge from the stresses of their hustle. Trustworthy is an enjoyable slice of emotional hip-hop filled with captivating storytelling, inventive take-downs and a solid showcase from one of the game’s newer voices.
Truth Is – Joda Kgosi [produced by Elizee]
We’ve previously done a review of this song which you can read in full here. Truth Is is as a pop-R&B hybrid that finds Joda Kgosi finally letting go of a chaotic relationship by unloading her feelings about the boy she once loved, and it is gloriously scathing. Backed by a light summery production, Kgosi doesn’t hold back on the venom as she calls out her grievances from inconsistent messaging to being ghosted and gaslit.
You’re With Me (Intro) – Elizee [produced by Elizee]
Elizee is one of the primary architects behind the growing new wave of local contemporary R&B. Our final pick finds him taking centre stage, as an artist, with the trapsoul scorcher that is You’re With Me. Backed by an intimate production of keys, trap-drums and a chorus of back-up harmonies that consistently repeat the phrase “I know you’re with me”, Elizee lets his guard down by exploring his insecurities with a growing love interest. Often a cool and detached persona, Elizee unleashes one of his most expressive vocal performances that finds him truly reeling; revealing how he doesn’t feel good enough for her but is still incredibly grateful for her presence in his life. All in under 3 minutes, You’re With Me is concise as a vulnerable and quaking display of affection that feels honest and raw. It sonically continues to assert why Elizee is a threatening force within new-age R&B, he knows exactly what he’s doing and this is a confident display of that fact. Rich in sound and intimate in feel, You’re With Me is delectable trapsoul that will have you yearning for that special someone.
Read our producer’s article on Elizee here.