It’s finally behind us. The year of 2020 was one that upended norms and affected lives in ways both positive and negative, giving new perspectives and priorities. It was also a drastically polarizing year for Americans like me, and taught us a lot about people we know (or thought we knew).
Many of us have, for the most part, remained home this year. Music has been our escape from reality; sound helps us travel, albeit sonically, while we have been unable to travel otherwise.
So many artists, unable to tour or perform live, instead redirected those energies into creating new sounds. The indie and alternative dance tracks that were released over the year were plentiful and numerous, and I wish I had the time to provide a deep dive into it all. Nonetheless, what is gathered for you here are the songs that I believe both met the sound and achieved a reach that make them the need-to-knows of the past year. These are tracks that were released from December 2019 through November 2020. We’ll catch December 2020 a year from now.
While these tracks are not all inherently “indie” (always a debate), as I have explained in previous years, I take a holistic sound approach to this genre, not status, and seek influence that traces roots from the danceable rock and disco of the 70s, through the new wave 80s, alternative 90s, and dance punk influences of the 00s. This is a lot of feeder material, and provides for a wide-eyed and exciting format. The music and influence herein is also what provides the foundation for the Indie Discotheque team; we bring you not just this Indie Dance chart, but the Disco/Funk and Synth charts as well.
Take time to enjoy the sounds below, and feel free to explore the Spotify playlist if you want to dive into this music even more.
1. Poorstacy - Don’t Look At Me
My goodness, would I love another dance punk revival. The success of Poorstacy’s “Don’t Look At Me” (produced by Whethan) underscores the pent up desire for this slightly more pop-accessible aggressive aesthetic. I can’t think of too many other songs that sum up 2020 - going where the wind blows, retreating inward and staying home, and finding whatever way you can to not be alone in the world.
2. Wallows - OK
Now that the year is over, it’s time to try to get ourselves back up and feel OK again. There’s always a place for steady tempo indie dance with incredibly well-processed vocals, but this one from Wallows really falls into place with the way the last year has been. Also, I’ve been saying “OK” like the sample in this track since I first heard it. Say it with me.
3. Whethan - Stay Forever feat. STRFKR
I appreciate Whethan for the variety of music he produces, but it’s the indie dance tracks where he excels. This collaboration with STRFKR is my personal favorite and the highlight of 2020’s Fantasy album. Other amazing tracks released by Whethan this year include “Sunshine” with The Knocks, "All In My Head" featuring Grandson, and "Ocean Energy" with Mr Gabriel.
4. Mura Masa - Teenage Heartache Dreams
Mura Masa pulls the emotional drawstrings for me in this one. The sound of “Teenage Heartache Dreams” is very atmospheric, with echoing backing guitar that has an applied distance, pulling me back into the shoegaze/ethereal movement of the late 90s. The structure of the song is a true journey, with a pace that fluctuates, featuring a variety of elements that make you stop and listen.
5. Dominic Fike - Double Negative (Skeleton Milkshake)
The guitar work and the musicality of the melodies in “Double Negative (Skeleton Milkshake)” are such that you can’t help but want to sing along, but while I want to compare the vibe of the songwriting with classics like “Hey Ya” and “Dancing With Myself,” this song is much deeper lyrically, without moments to just let loose. I wish this song were expanded; it’s that good.
6. Gorillaz - The Valley of the Pagans feat. Beck
The music that poured out over the course of the year in Gorillaz’ Song Machine project has been nothing more than outstanding in every way. There are so many songs I wanted to include, but the highlight for me is “The Valley of the Pagans” featuring Beck. Other great tracks include “Aries” featuring Peter Hook and Georgia, and “Strange Timez” with Robert Smith.
7. Maude Latour - Furniture
Break up songs are everywhere, but Maude Latour really brings out some impressive mental imagery with lyrics describing melting through the furniture and slipping through the cracks of the floorboards. Even without a breakup story, 2020 provided plenty of moments where we’ve felt like we just want to melt away. “Furniture” rings true in more ways than one.
8. RAC - Passion
Earlier in the year, RAC questioned whether or not he makes dance music, and admittedly, my jaw dropped a bit. Absolutely! While 2020’s release, Boy, was certainly further into the chillout column than prior releases, the spirit of Andre Anjos’ sound still rings in a massive way. “Passion” is my personal highlight, because we need to keep our lights shining.
9. Dansu - Say Say Say
Heartbreak on the dancefloor is always going to be a thing, and Dansu has that track for 2020 with “Say Say Say.” It’s a song with a crisp, easy flowing beat, a vocal-forward production reminisce of the moment a relationship had ceased. Notable are the smooth bass grooves and the piano accents. It’s a sing-along to get you through any breakup.
10. Mickey Kojak - Strange
The introduction of space lasers and mysterious vibes certainly sets the stage to get us feeling kind of “Strange,” and you can’t deny the crisp percussion and funky guitar that keeps this track grooving. I am perpetually impressed with Mickey Kojak’s songwriting, and thus far he has managed to make it onto this list every year I’ve put it together; an accomplishment in itself.
11. The Jungle Giants - Sending Me Ur Loving
Between the falsetto vocal, the compressed, thumping bass rhythms, and the crisp guitar samples, “Sending Me Ur Loving” is a track that has impressively captured my interest. There are real Hot Chip vibes going on, and the rise and fall of the pacing between bridge and chorus provide just enough of a breather to get you right back into it as the track picks up again.
12. Circa Waves - Sad Happy
The sound of “Sad Happy'' fits the title of the track perfectly. The instrumentation harbors Empire of the Sun vibes across the track, but the vocal performance brings the passion. The acoustic guitar strumming across the track is a warm contrast to the crisp, consistent drumming. Circa Waves' layer and texture applications to the vocal maintain my interest and hold my ear to the lyric.
13. Laurel - Scream Drive Faster
Sing it, Laurel. There is confidence and power in her voice, with a mild echo effect and alternate layering applied that makes the room feel absolutely massive. There is a lot of synth in “Scream Drive Faster,” which provides a solid wall of atmosphere to compliment the smooth, subdued bass. There is a simple, yet effective guitar feature mid-track, and is arranged behind the vocal.
14. The Undercover Dream Lovers - You Don’t Have to Be Lonely
With a bit of twang in the guitar and the slightly muffled texture present in the keys, “You Don’t Have to Be Lonely” by The Undercover Dream Lovers is a track with modern arrangement and danceability, but the analog soundscape and mid-range tempo of the song also exhibit a 1970’s pop vibe. The performance of the vocal in the upper register also serves this effect well.
15. Coin - Valentine
The tempo of “Valentine” is quick, and it is amplified by the wind-up effect exhibited in the introduction of the track. Coin provides a catchy song that leans into outside influence with the danceability, guitar treatment, and the style of vocal performance found within this track all having true indie dance sensibility. We featured the album, Dreamland, back in February.
16. Alfie Templeman - Obvious Guy
A lot of us don’t want to be obvious guys. It’s a lot easier to just stand back and blend into your surroundings, but there are times where moments require us to step up and pull it together without being awkward and saying everything twice. Alfie Templeman also does not want to be that guy, but he’s found a great way to alternately express this feeling through this track.
17. Kunzite - Novas
A surprise for me this year, Kunzite picked up where Ratatat left off and continued the mid-tempo vibes so famous by that project. While I am late to this party, I continue to be impressed with subsequent releases. The instrumentation of Mike Stroud is unmistakable, and the additional talents of Augustin White provide a fresh perspective to an already familiar sound.
18. Phantogram - Dear God
When I see “Dear God” as a song title, I think of previous god-like indie and alternative dance tracks by projects like XTC and perhaps also Tori Amos. Phantogram brings a familiar soundtrack to this song with a pace that is perfect for the dancefloor. This is a track that has sing-along harmonies that are harder to find in today’s music landscape.
19. Mystery Skulls - Nothing Can Stop Us Now
Huge vibes abound in “Nothing Can Stop Us Now,” a banger of an anthem from Mystery Skills. This is a track that oozes influence from bands like Justice, and is one of those tracks that I just have to experience on a massive sound system someday. Perhaps we will be able to have an opportunity to do just that this year.
20. Low Island - Don’t Let the Light In
The layering of the vocals in “Don’t Let the Light In” have an effect similar to what TEED and Skylar Spence accomplish in their tracks, and I like that more artists are exploring this voice treatment. The atmospheric textures applied across the backside of the soundscape are fantastic, but it certainly sounds bright for a track about trying to maintain the darkness.
21. The Knocks - All About You feat. Foster the People
Indie Pop jam of the year? This one is certainly in the running, with chanting choirs of children adding backing texture to Foster the People’s vocal performance. The Knocks have crafted an epic big beat influenced instrumental with early 00s vibes, including accent piano, electronic warbles and additional impressive sound design.
22. Paper Idol - Money for Flowers
It’s a fast-paced dance rock at its core, but it's also a love song that provides a commentary on infatuation within relationships, the desire to provide niceties to those you care about, and the effects of being unable to do so. Overall, “Money for Flowers” is one heck of a catchy track that is both relatable, danceable, and a song we can totally sing along to at the top of our lungs.
23. Hotel Garuda - Leave You
The sound and groove of the bass in this track is so thick, and it carries across the song in a way that defines the track and provides an unforgettable foundation. When it is not there, the track has a noticeable void; in some ways I wish “Leave You” maintained a subdued presence during those moments. Check out the tour Hotel Garuda gave of his studio in September.
24. Goth Babe - As She Dreams
I enjoy the songwriting, mood, and vocal performance in “As She Dreams” in a similar way that I like the music of TR/ST; Goth Babe has a production style that has similarities. Certainly the effects applied to the vocal are one. The guitar work in the song has a luscious atmosphere to it, and is accompanied by steady bass tones that hum comfortable in the background.
25. Kytes - Go Out
The songwriting of “Go Out” is so upbeat and catchy, and brings a smile to your face. I love Kytes' staccato nature of the songwriting; each element of the song has a distinct separation that is emphasized by the drum machine. The vocal performance is solid and confident, with a bounce in the performance that brings the track to the next level.
Here’s everything in a playlist: