Your Ultimate Guide to the Top Indie Songs of 2020
2020 was a difficult year for the music industry, and even worse for the musicians who are always trying to make a living in an increasingly difficult industry. Still though, musicians managed to find a way to release music and reach their fanbases. They may not have been able to tour, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t any new music to listen to.
Thanks to modern recording technology and streaming services, musicians were able to make music and bring it to the people when they needed it the most. So, let’s take a look at the top indie songs 2020.
What does “indie” mean?
Before we get into the top indie songs 2020, let’s back up for a second and examine exactly what does “indie” mean anymore? In the beginning (meaning the 1970s), there was an enormous gulf between musicians signed to a label, and those who were not. At the time, recording an album or even a single song was extremely expensive, and there wasn’t sufficient technology for people to produce their own, high-quality, recordings.
The greater problem was distribution though. Even if you could produce a professional sounding record, you still had to find a way to get it to people’s ears. If you weren’t on a record label, your music wouldn’t be carried in stores, and it wouldn’t be played on the radio. At the time, record labels had much greater power over distribution, and that meant that unsigned artists had almost no chance of having their music heard by a wide audience. But that didn’t keep them from making music.
The punk scene of the 1970s was initially shunned by the traditional music industry, but there was an underground market for it. Punk bands began recording their own records however they could, and they sold them at small shows. Some gained followings and were absorbed by the music industry once it became apparent that you could make money from punk music, and others, like Fugazi, chose to never join the music industry, instead remaining fully independent.
In the beginning, that’s what “indie” meant. No music industry support whatsoever. Of course, this has changed dramatically over the last four decades, and at this point, “indie” is more of a genre of music rather than a lack of affiliation with the music industry.
In the 1990s, indie record labels like Sub Pop gained traction because they released music by bands who were becoming popular on their own. Nirvana and Soundgarden both started out on Sub Pop before transitioning to major labels.
Some bands, like Radiohead, have gone in the opposite direction. After becoming frustrated at their lack of control and the fact that they didn’t own the masters to their recordings, Radiohead actually became indie over ten years into their career.
When we think of indie music these days, we tend to think of musicians who exist outside of the mainstream, although many of these musicians are signed to major labels. Their music might not be played on mainstream radio, but many “indie” artists today are a far cry from the DIY days of the 70s.
What are the top indie songs of 2020?
“I Want You to Love Me” by Fiona Apple
You can’t really have a conversation about indie music in 2020 without starting with Fiona Apple’s long-awaited album Fetch the Bolt Cutters. The track “I Want You to Love Me” starts off sounding like something Ben Folds might have created for the soundtrack to a new Peanuts movie. The lilting piano feels so familiar, but it’s hard to say why. But then Apple’s distinct voice cuts in and the song starts to feel more unhinged and experimental.
There are moments in the song, specifically the choruses, where it feels like Fiona Apple has accidentally written a conventional love song, but that’s exactly when she pulls the rug out from under you. Vocal notes held so long that they become discordant with the piano. Her signature shaky vocals that say pretty words in the most disturbing ways keeps the track from feeling like it could have been written or performed by anyone else.
“Can I Believe You” by Fleet Foxes
Seattle indie rockers Fleet Foxes have maintained a pretty healthy following for a band that seems to appear and disappear without warning. Part of this could be due to J. Tillman becoming distracted by his success with Father John Misty. But when lead singer/guitarist Robin Pecknold gets the band back together, it’s always good news.
“Can I Believe You” sees Fleet Foxes returning to what they do best: big, lush songs dripping with plate reverb and classic rock vocal harmonies. Pecknold has developed his vocal stylings since he was a sideman in numerous Seattle rock bands, but his voice these days is just as smooth and emotive as always. The Foxes aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, but this track is so good that it really doesn’t matter.
“Now I’m In It” by Haim
The last few years have been pretty big for the Haim sisters. A huge, breakout record followed by a short hiatus, and then drummer Alana Haim starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Academy Award nominated film Licorice Pizza. 2020 saw the sister put out a new record with this instant classic in it.
Easily one of the top indie songs 2020, “Now I’m In It” pulses with the kind of sharp, staccato intensity that we’re used to from Haim. There’s a kind of elegance to their songwriting and production that perfectly builds tension in what would otherwise be a pretty simple song. But because of how deliberate every note it is, it becomes something much more compelling. Now that Haim is back, it’s likely we’ll continue to see more smart and catchy indie rock from this trio.
“Bad Decisions” by The Strokes
When the Strokes went on hiatus, it felt as though they may have run their course. But when they returned a number of years later, it was as though they had been reborn. There was a new sense of urgency to their songwriting, and they were finally letting their songs bloom into fully developed compositions. In a way, they returned as a much more mature band than they had been before.
“Bad Decisions” reflects this shift from the Strokes. The carefully arranged guitars are still there, but there’s more harmonic richness to the composition, and rather than finishing the song before they really get started, they let it play out exactly as much as they need to. Perhaps the most refreshing part of the new era of the Strokes is the lack of distortion on Julian Casablancas’ vocals. It’s nice to hear his voice higher in the mix, and hopefully we get more of that in the future.
“Lost in Yesterday” by Tame Impala
The one-man musical machine that is Tame Impala always turns out tracks that deliver complexity as well as something nostalgic and familiar. This track harkens back to the 1980s, which has become a somewhat popular destination for a lot of artist these days. But there’s also something distinctly fresh-sounding about this song.
Like many Tame Impala songs, there’s too much going on here to absorb it all in one listen. While the main part of the song is what drives it, there are countless sounds that bounce around the peripheries of this track that pulls the listener in different directions. This is only enhanced by the way Tame Impala can effortlessly shift rhythms on a dime.
“Conversation” by Leon Bridges & Khruangbin
It’s seems as though Khruangbin just came out of nowhere to suddenly be headlining shows and festivals around the world. One of the best new artists of 2020, their lush, sultry style pairs perfectly with Leon Bridges flowing voice on this track to create something that really doesn’t sound like it came out this year or this century, frankly.
As the track unfolds over a little more than six minutes, we get a good sense of what Khruangbin is all about. They are nothing if not patient. While many indie rock bands want to get right to the point, Khruangbin is satisfied to take their time and create a soundscape that you can inhabit for the length of the song. It’s a rare gift when a band can make an extended piece of music that never loses the listener’s attention.
Best Indie/Folk songs of 2020
“Garden Song” by Phoebe Bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers is pretty much everywhere these days, but in 2020 she was just beginning her campaign of absolute indie domination. Much of that domination began with “Garden Song,” one of the most interesting and best indie songs of 2020. The track begins with warped guitars that feel as though they’re being played on a broken tape recorder, but the glitches are obviously perfectly crafted.
Bridgers’ voice is front and center for most of the track with a vivid clarity that is necessary to hear every single word she’s saying. The lyrics are subdued and heartbreaking at the same time, and as with much of Bridgers’ early work, it feels like you’re given a window into something profoundly personal. Kind of like being told a secret by a stranger.
“Graceland Too” by Phoebe Bridgers
Yeah, we’ve got to include another track by Phoebe Bridgers on this list of top indie songs 2020. We couldn’t pick just one. This track finds Bridger’s crystal-clear voice surrounded by mandolin, banjo, and fiddle for a song that is half indie/folk and half murder ballad.
As with all of Bridger’s work, there is something confessional and deeply personal about this track. What also makes Bridgers’ writing stand out is the fact that you can never predict where her lyrics will go next, and her self-harmonizing swirls in perfect stereo for an otherworldly effect. Especially as she sings, “I’ll do whatever you want.”
“Can’t Do Much” by Waxahatchee
Waxahatchee are indie/folk legends and they just keep getting better with age. “Can’t Do Much” finds them doing what they do best: crafting catchy, delicate folk/rock that floats beneath twangy vocals that sound as though they were recorded in Nashville forty years ago.
Like many of Wilco’s best songs, “Can’t Do Much” excels at mixing a bit of Dylan-esq cynicism and lyrical trickery to make it’s point. It’s why Waxahatchee has been such an enduring fixture on the indie/folk circuit.
“Santa Barbara” by Angelo DeAugustine ft. Sufjan Stevens
Evoking Elliot Smith, this track from Angelo DeAugustine begins with delicate nylon string guitar and hard panned unison vocals. As it goes on, “Santa Barbara” continues to ascend lyrically and melodically. But even as it expands instrumentally, it still remains light as air yet very much grounded in a good understanding of what makes for good indie/folk.
It’s appropriate that Sufjan Stevens is featured on this track because this is the kind of indie/folk that he was making nearly twenty years ago. But this track shows how Stevens has inspired a new generation of songwriters to continue this tradition of music that speaks softly but has so much to say.
Back to the best new indie songs of 2020
So, what are the best indie songs of 2020? Let’s find out.
“Gospel for a New Century” by Yves Tumor
At first, you can be forgiven for thinking that there is something wrong with whatever device you are using to listen to this track. For the first twenty or so seconds, the song feels as though it keeps stopping and restarting, but of course, this is just a way to keep the listener on their toes.
Once the song really gets started, we’re treated to something that sounds a bit like old-school Prince, but with a rough around the edges aesthetic that clearly sets Yves Tumor apart from the legend. What really makes the track stand out though, is the way the production seamlessly incorporates so many different elements without ever feeling over crowded or chaotic.
“Red Shoulder” by Squirrel Flower
Squirrel Flower is still pretty new to the indie scene, but if this track is any indication, we will be hearing a lot more from her in the future. The track opens with raw electric guitar that evokes early Built to Spill songs, but when the song really gets going it to vocals tell us that this is a different kind of indie rock.
The band itself has a rough around the edges feel that reminds listeners of bands like Pavement who laid the foundation for the next two decades of indie rock. There is no glossy production here; no studio magic to hide behind. The result is something really refreshing because it makes you realize how rarely you hear new music that feels like it was just put on tape with no extra help from technology.
“Beautiful Faces” by Declan McKenna
Declan McKenna may just be a young lad, but he’s clearly aware of the music that came before him. Evoking the vocals of Franz Ferdinand, McKenna brings a sense of light fun to indie/rock with a chaotic band that perfectly encapsulates the decadence that McKenna is trying to achieve with this track.
One of the things we’ve been noticing in recent years is that many indie artists are doing a very good job when it comes to choosing their influences. McKenna is trying to evoke a late 60s psychedelia but in a completely different way than indie/rock titans The Flaming Lips do. The result is something fresh and different even if it feels very rooting in music you’ve heard before.
“For the Snakes” by The Mountain Goats
Probably the most indie song on this list, “For the Snakes” was recorded at home, during the pandemic by singer John Darnielle. It has elements that are familiar if you’ve listened to the Mountain Goats’ other work, but there is something more personal about this track. Darnielle’s voice doesn’t have the same level of affectation as usual, and of course, this is a very stripped-down non-professional recording.
This is what makes it such a perfect song for 2020, as well as one of the top indie songs 2020. It reminds us of the isolation that we experienced, and the toll that it took on working musicians who had to do their best to survive during an especially difficult time.
So, if you are wondering, what are the top indie songs of 2020, hopefully our list has been of some help. At Turntable, our goal is to help people find new music and music they may have overlooked. But the best thing about finding new music is sharing it with your friends. So, go ahead and put together your playlist of the top indie songs 2020, and get your party started.