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 our 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 and part 2 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…
Top 10 [Listed alphabetically, not in ranking]
Amnesia – The Big Hash [produced by Elizee]
We’re kicking things off with a song that is a staple within my shower concerts; a messy slice of contemporary Pop-R&B primed to sing-along to and/or vent on a rainy night, The Big Hash’s Amnesia. In the pantheon of contemporary crossover artists currently rising, The Big Hash remains one of the most compelling. He provided one of my favourite cuts of pop glory last year with Circles and seems to have followed that up this year with an even bolder play at pop R&B with Amnesia. Tonally, Amnesia finds Hash covering similar petty ground as a wronged lover but this time with more venom, melancholy and is defeated; he’s a heartbroken mess searching for clarity within his flailing relationship. What makes this song compelling to me is just how carefully constructed of an earworm it is. This song is relentlessly catchy and begins with a repitched Hash vocal that plays on a loop and then moves to the background as the song’s chorus begins. By the time the song’s initial chorus is done, that hook is firmly implanted in your brain. Amnesia finds Hash giving his most confidently impassioned vocal performance over a sleekly produced piece of contemporary R&B. The track continuously remains progressive by balancing its multiple hooks seamlessly in the background, from Hash’s repitched vocal and glossy harmonies to the pensive trap instrumentation. This song is toxic R&B escapism, and all I ask for is a karaoke version to emphatically sing off-key to.
Read our previous article on The Big Hash here.
eMcibini – Kabza De Small & DJ Maphorisa featuring Aymos, Myztro, Mas Musiq and Samthing Soweto [produced by Myztro, Mas Musiq, Kabza De Small & DJ Police]
Amapiano was the dominant genre of 2020 in South Africa. For a dance genre to maintain the level of unwavering dominance that the yanos did through a pandemic speaks to it being more than just a ubiquitous trend. There’s a magic in the sound and in the feeling it induces. The Scorpion Kings’ various collaborations with Samthing Soweto continue to tap into that magic and they did multiple times in 2019 (see Amantombazane, Akulaleki). eMcibini continues that streak of pure amapiano addiction by enlisting the help of Aymos and Mas Musiq. Conceptually, e-Mcibini is a track that explores the effects the yanos has when it’s playing at an event/party. It’s production is mesmerizing and tribal as it patiently and progressively builds throughout the track. The opening vocal lines build on the progression with hypnotic arabic-esque phrasing that serve to lead in Aymos’ contribution. Aymos leads the song by contextualizing us into the world of an unruly party, how he finds it hard to leave and how no rest will be had as long as Amapiano continues to play. Samthing Soweto brings in the rhythmic flair with a verse corroborating Aymos’ claim, noting the complaints their late-night partying will garner from their neighbours. It was a completely different reality than one the massive Lockdown presented. Part of that charm, for me, was in that escapism. E-Mcibini‘s groove, once it settles in, is infectious and almost impossible to ignore; with the rich yet propulsive instrumentation being the secret sauce for me. In a world where events were barred for more than a quarter during lockdown and where I hadn’t seen past my local grocery store for half the year, E-Mcibini was feel-good escapism and a kind of fantasy rebellion of a groove pre-Co-Vid. Even without the context of our lockdown, eMcibini is a fantastic dance song but within it the song represented a euphoric escape to livelier days.
Levitate – Roho featuring Huey [produced by DoouShii]
Whilst Amapiano was the most dominant genre, the space I personally escaped to the most was R&B, as shown by its prominence on this list. Our next pick is a contribution from one of the coolest personas growing in that space, Roho, who has this uncanny ability of making music that is intoxicating. Levitate finds him delivering that in spades as this song feels like a daydream. Conceptually, the song finds Roho looking for solace after continuous bouts of fighting personal demons when a friend comes to visit him by the river. They meditate as Roho reveals his demons and the intimacy of the interaction becomes transcendental as the chorus jovially rides that wave. Huey floats onto the track with nonchalance, providing a slick verse that finds him high and exploring how he maintains an aura that allows him to persevere over his own struggles. Levitate‘s production is an intoxicating affair that is built off of a hypnotic percussive section, a menacing bass and the keys which pepper it with a pensive energy that can get quite dreamy. Roho’s vocal production shines with background vocals and adlibs that intensify the track’s intoxicating appeal whilst enhancing his emotional state; see the first verse’s “what you gon’ do when you come for you?” breakdown, the back-up vocals are mesmerizing whilst the low “yah” adlibs present a more carnal menace. This is a song that allows me to get high on its supply. It’s an entrancing, soothing and addictive slice of alternative R&B that can subdue me in its world through continuous repeat. Actually, let me get back to it right now. Be right back.
Makhoza – Muzi [produced by Muzi]
Muzi has been one of the most reliable exports of increasingly feel-good dance music in South Africa. His latest offering, Mama, is an act of mourning that finds him navigating his grief following his mother’s passing. While some songs do maintain elements with a comforting and/or soothing dance appeal, Makhoza drops the pretense completely, and it is heartrending. The song begins with its hook that reads like a reminder Muzi has to give himself to let some life and energy in as he mourns: “Roll-up in the morning, windows open. Make sure you see the sunlight.” Muzi orients us with his world and how it changed in the first verse, from the incredible high he had following Zeno‘s release and being a new father to where he is now. The second verse explores how his grief relented as time continued to pass and it really shows us how betraying death can feel. Muzi is incredibly frank about struggling to keep it together in Makhoza, how that affects his music and being a father. The production is orchestral; melancholic keys and a swelling string section form the core of the song as Muzi is backed up by a chorus of voices. The instrumentation brings the drama, starting off rather stripped but steadily builds from the second verse with a wider string section that tugs at the heartstrings. This gradual crescendo is met with this climactic breakdown that bring the drums and bass out to play. It’s a satisfying moment of reckless abandon that takes over the song until it ends, allowing you space to lose yourself. Makhoza is an emotional undertaking. The end to a fitting tribute that is unabashedly mournful and cathartic.
Needy – Naye Ayla featuring Foreighn [produced by YoursTruly]
Did anyone order a heap of soulful yearning because that’s exactly what Naye Ayla and Foreighn are serving up on our next pick. Needy finds Ayla in an emotionally raw and vulnerable state as she looks for comforting affirmation with a romantic interest. Built on a chorus-line that reads: “I’m not needy, I’m just honest. I get weak and I need a little comfort”, the song finds Ayla digging into a myriad of insecurities by asking him questions she has about herself and their relationship’s standing, from not feeling like she’s interesting enough to them not being on the same page. Foreighn’s verse acts as a response that’s filled with affirmative statements that express his investment in the relationship and his affection for her before also revealing that he too gets needy. This is all backed by some incredibly rich production that maintains a torchy energy throughout with a full band of instruments to pull from. The drums have this Marvin Gaye-esque quality that form the core of the song whilst the initial guitar work peppers it with this haunting feel that continues to intensify with more instrumentation as the verse develops before erupting into chorus. The guitar-work from the arpeggios to the strumming is subtle but incredibly effective as a secret sauce. The additional vocal production is entrancing and does wonders in amplifying the increasing tension between Ayla and Foreighn before lead-guitar leads us out with a smoky solo. Needy is a love song which takes its time in being torchy, isn’t scared to be messy, and is all the more satisfying for it.
Peace – Thato Saul & Tyson S.T [produced by DoouShii]
Thato Saul and Tyson S.T were already having a solid year of solo work before deciding to join forces on the collaborative At Your Service, which found the duo going bar-for-bar in pure hip-hop storytelling. They struck gold and the evidence shows in the project’s opening track, Peace. Structurally, the track is formless. It functions as an open platform where each rapper serves up a 90-second verse over one of Doou$hii’s most menacingly pensive productions. The song’s chorus only appears at the end as sort of a climax, with each rapper taking a contrasting approach to peace. With an opening line that reads “Under-pressure is an overstatement to me”, Saul sets the stage effortlessly with a verse that has him in full rap-battle mode. His effort is jam-packed with one-liners, clever word-play and inventive insults that position him as a venerable force not to be messed with. He’s not stressed and is effectively at peace with his standing as a rapper. Teli switches gears by providing a verse that pulls us into his world of inner-turmoil as he effectively has an existential crisis. The leading line is “Every move demands justice” and what ensues is an unraveling performance of him trying to figure out what that is for him. Teli exposes his traumas in vivid detail from continuously grieving death and fighting depression whilst being financially insecure. The financial insecurity straining his balance of trying to make an honest living and making his mother proud whilst not giving up on his dream that’s effectively giving him hope. Teli’s search for what can bring him peace is messy and uncomfortably raw. Their opposing takes on their concept of peace is a compelling piece of rap music that acts as a solid showcase for how both Teli and Saul are tremendous forces in the space. When it comes to engaging storytelling there are few songs that have had me as gripped as Peace, or as emotionally wrought as I feel after listening to it.
Stay Up – Huey featuring Tyson S.T & ThandoNje [produced by Luni and DoouShii]
Huey’s Chasing Magic is one of the most satisfying projects to come out this year and a personal favorite within hip-hop. At its heart, Chasing Magic is a feel-good and aspirational record that shows Huey as a frank, laid-back and versatile storyteller coming into his own on multiple fronts. Stay Up is one of the darker more soul-ful cuts and acts as an ode to resilience, with a chorus that reads: “I’ve been through it all, I’ve seen it all. I’ve got to stay up and got to strong. Been through hell and back and I can’t let that hold me back. I’ve got to get up and keep on moving on.” Huey and Tyson S.T are steely, swinging for the fences with menacing flair as they approach from two different states. Huey swaggers in with his signature laid-back demeanor explaining how he’s introverted nature rubs some egos off the wrong way. His verse then goes to call-out the deceitful and performative ways in which he sees people carry themselves in the industry. Huey maintains an almost nonchalant energy throughout, resulting in him praying that his enemies get a front-row seat to watch his success story. The gears switch with Tyson S.T as he brings a venomous aggression to the track. If you want to see violence personified or a lyrical depiction of ‘come get this smoke’, I present Teli’s verse as an exhibit: his opening line reads “The girl you love ain’t never coming back, might as well text her friend that you’re outside the place she at.” Teli approaches his verse with a seething coldness as he calls out someone he knows to constantly lie to himself on Twitter, whilst detailing the steps Teli’s taking to preserve his own peace. His scathing takedown is a harrowing account of someone who’s caught up in a life of crime and still has a sense of denial about where his cycle is headed without taking active course-correction. ThandoNje soulfully ties the song together by delivering the chorus with a fiery resolve that feels triumphant and assured. Her winning delivery makes it feel like she, Huey and Teli are seasoned warriors who know they’re going to make it out of their next fight. When you couple Stay Up with our giddy mid-year pick Jaji Juice, it paints Huey as an assured rapper; he knows what he’s doing and is just here to have fun with it. When you listen to him Chasing Magic, you realize that he’s one of the coolest rappers around.
Tata – Zoe Modiga [produced by Banda Banda]
Zoe Modiga is a world-class, diva-level vocalist and vocal storyteller. If anyone ever tries to dispute that fact, simply play INGANEKWANE and Seba Kaapstad’s Konke and look at the range, the skill and versatility on display. The material speaks for itself. Music is a universal language that is able to transcend language with its storytelling, whether it be through instrumentation, composition or even vocal performances. Whilst modern and contemporary vocal music has predominantly veered towards lyricism as its main tool of expression, it’s not the only one. Zoe Modiga’s Tata provides a vocal masterclass in powerful storytelling, without the use of lyrics. Found mid-way through Inganekwane, Tata is a 5-minute showcase in the form of a meditation and praise. Backed by an orchestra, Modiga’s instrument takes center stage in a piece that is spiritual, pensive and incredible evocative; her vocals range from nondescript and lullaby-like to pained and mournful. Modiga’s vocals ebb and flow masterfully against the arranging accompaniment, which in and of itself is stunning. The production is an acoustic jazzy affair filled with guitars, keys and a string section. The instrumentation is often low-key and pensive. The keys provide consistent and lite jazz flourishes. The string section really flourishes in Tata providing some of the most sweeping and climactic moments of the piece and in the album as a whole. Tata is a breathtaking piece of music. It’s a score to a scene in your mind, a piece I hope to see score emotional moments in films and TV.
The Misery of Your Need to Be – Sergiodeartist [produced by Sergio Modise]
“…You’re like a ghost pointing an empty sleeve, smirking at everything that people feel or want or struggle for… I pity you.”
“You pity me?”
“Isn’t there anything? What touches you? What warms you? Every man has a dream , what do you dream about? You don’t need anything do you? People? Love? An idea just to cling to? You poor slob, you’re all alone… When you go to your grave there won’t be anybody to pull a grass up over your head…”
This is an excerpt from the Oscar-nominated film, Inherit The Wind (1960). The excerpt is taken from the the film’s climactic scene between Spencer Tracy (bold) and Gene Kelly (italics) as they come to a head on a conversation that questions sentimentality in the wake of a known death. It also serves as the launching pad to one of the most ambitious feats of existentialism I’ve heard recently in Sergiodeartist’s The Misery of Your Need to Be. Split into four distinct sections; following the repitched excerpt Sergio launches into two verses that find him flexing his poetic pen. Backed by an organ, Sergio contemplates his existence as he searches for meaning. He finds himself in this endless cycle that breathes no new information, one which finds him reliving old horrors despite his best efforts to avoid them. Sergio revels in this state as he paints vivid and scenic pictures that are disrupted by terror in this breakdown. The search leaves him bruised, battered and more empty than whence he started but his search for meaning and belonging still continues. The song takes a turn when he realizes that he may not have a place of belonging which brings about a despondency, expressed in the lines: “Who the fuck cares anymore?”. The next section wallows in the despondency as the line is continuously repeated over a spirited piano solo that turns into an acapella chorus of industrialized voices. I have had a several bouts of existentialism during the whirlwind that has been 2020 and fewer things have felt as comforting and cathartic as this wallowing breakdown that gradually builds in its intensity. A searing industrial bass creeps in around the end to amplify the rage as it climaxes and it’s a dizzying experience. The final section strips things back to an intimate acapella lead by Sergio’s stirring falsetto, as he asks a final set of questions that find him yearning for this place of belonging. The Misery of Your Need to Be is found midway through his entrancing album, Sorcery, and truly is its piece-de-resistance. It shows SergiodeArtist’s ability to tap into increasingly repressed sectors of the human psyche, take his audience there and still offer them some relief. The Misery of Your Need to Be is an incredibly acquired taste and a compelling showcase of Sergiodeartis’s artistic ambition; it’s progressive, it’s industrial, it’s poetic, it’s messy but it is a singular experience. A welcomed one at that in a world that grows more unpredictable.
Vhuludu – Muneyi featuring Taxda [produced by Taxda]
Closing our list of selections is a sweeping piece of folk music released by Tshivenda singer Muneyi, Vhuludu. Delivered in his mother-tongue, Vhuludu is a song that explores themes of solitude and isolation, and the moments missed when one is in such a state. From the initial guitar-strumming, the track lays as an incredibly introspective space for Muneyi to build his thoughts on, and what a simmering experience it is. Muneyi provides an incredibly dynamic vocal performance that shows how skillful he is as a vocal storyteller. His vocals start off quite reserved and delicate before launching into spaces that stretch him to powerful and wilting ends. Despite not knowing a word of TshiVenda, Vhuludu‘s able to pull you into this incredibly emotional experience that climaxes with this bridge packed with sweeping vocal runs that see Muneyi reach for the heavens whilst being backed by some of the most soothing harmonies and instrumentation. Vhuludu is a breathtaking piece of storytelling that represents a growing reality exacerbated by this ongoing pandemic. I kept getting lost in it as it soundtracked some of my breakdowns through repeat listenings. This is a ballad for 2020.
Before we sign off our top 10, I wanted to acknowledge 2 songs which were an indelible part of our 2020 experience but weren’t considered on this list due to parameters; one was released deep into 2019 whilst the other is an unofficial remix/flip.
Jerusalema – Master KG featuring Nomcebo
Jerusalema became a global sensation this year and it was hard to not get caught up in its whirlwind. This uplifting dance anthem already feels like it’s already become a standard. It brings about this giddy-feeling that you can’t deny and offered a welcomed time of relief in the time the dance craze took flight. It’s hard to recount 2020 without the pure ubiquity of Jerusalema.
Love Back – Eote (Yolophonik Edit)
This was honestly one of my favourite viral music moments of 2020. It started off as a clip of Eote’s Love Back music video went viral on Twitter by a user who used it to mock local artists asking for support. A tired thread within specific pockets of SA Twitter and if I’m being honest, the original Love Back had a silly charm to it that was endearing to listen to. Yolophonik decided to turn that tweet on its head by releasing a remixed version using the exact same caption, and it banged. It banged hard. Yolophonik’s production enhanced Eote’s giddy delivery into a feel-good club thumper that went more viral than its mocking predecessor. It was a rewarding and endearing clapback that is still a vibe months later.