For most of us, 2020 stopped after February — at least, nothing felt real after then. Whether it was the COVID-19 pandemic, the death of so many loved celebrities, the protests for Black Lives Matter or the bananas 2020 U.S. election, so much happened this year, and it never slowed down. The only bright spot was the music — particularly, the melancholy songs that helped us cry our way through this dumpster fire of a year.
Some depend on upbeat, happy music to carry them through the tumultuous moments, while others lean on the pensive and despondent, typically in the form of sad indie music, to remind them they’re not alone. This is for those who fall within the latter.
No matter what you typically listen to, you have to admit: the sad music hit a little different this year. Even though 2020 is over now, there’s no end in sight for a lot of the problems that came out of it. Luckily, 2020’s music can come with you into the new year, so here’s 10 of the sad indie songs you should take with you:
10. “Oh, Boy” by Hailaker
Fans of Novo Amor will enjoy Hailaker, not only because he helped produce this track and one of its members, Ed Tullett, is a frequent collaborator of his, but because they sound eerily alike. Hailaker’s sophomore album, Holding, came out at the end of April when most people began to see just how serious COVID-19 is. There was no better time for this album, particularly its dejected track “Oh, Boy.”
While “Oh, Boy” is about the falling action and eventual end of a relationship, the lyrics resonate with how life felt this year: surreal. We’ve watched the life we know fade away and be replaced with a socially distant dystopia. We didn’t know how much we took advantage of meeting friends for coffee or going to the movies until we couldn’t anymore, which makes Hailaker’s words “But I’m just thinking of the times we had,” surrounded by a simple yet desolate strum of the guitar, sting just a little more.
9. “Lose This Number” by Christian Lee Hutson
Do those harmonies sound familiar? Yes, that is Phoebe Bridgers, who rightfully blew up this year and helped produce Hutson’s entire third album, Beginners. The album came out at the smack end of May when some thought they saw the light at the end of the tunnel, but this song was here to comfort us when the pandemic only got worse.
In “Lose This Number,” Hutson has been searching and searching for someone — for us, it was the news of a vaccine or a way to permanently stop the spread of the virus — but once he found them, they didn’t seem to care too much. They even agree they made a poor decision, saying “I got scared, and I took off,” so why should he trust them again? Surrounded by gorgeous strings and a dispirited yet twinkling guitar, he tells them to just delete his phone number. Oh, how we wish we could’ve told 2020 to do the same.
8. “Further Away” by Beabadoobee
Fans of Clairo won’t be able to stop listening to Beabadoobee once they give her a chance (plus, she previously supported Clairo on tour, so imagine how incredible that must’ve been live). Beabadoobee’s debut album, Fake It Flowers, dropped in mid-October, basically right around the time we lost all hope for getting to safely spend the holidays with our loved ones. This album became our crutch during that realization.
With “Further Away,” Beabadoobee finally makes us feel truly alive for the first time in months. Her vocals are as ethereal as humanly possible, and strings and dreamy guitars greet listeners to Beabadoobee’s mind as she has finally realized how toxic this person in her life was and how she’s ready to move on (Yeah, COVID-19, you’re the toxic person in our lives). The song doesn’t even feel real. That’s how atmospheric it is.
7. “Keep Me” by Novo Amor
Speaking of Novo Amor, he released his third album, Cannot Be, Whatsoever, at the beginning of November when there was an immense uptick in coronavirus cases, and the election should’ve been over, but votes were still being counted and pits still filled everyone’s stomachs. His third LP offers a change of pace and diverted away from his wholly despondent roots. However, he left a couple dismal tracks behind, including the gutting “Keep Me.”
On “Keep Me,” Novo Amor’s intrusive thoughts won’t leave, and he just wants his special someone to continue to give him a reason. Whether it’s his airy tone, the lifeless guitar, the strings that make you feel both nothing and everything all at once, there is something for every listener to cling to during this difficult time.
6. “sleepwalking” by Mokita (feat. Mike Kinsella)
Just a week after Novo Amor’s album was released, Mokita apparently wanted to ensure the sadness stayed looming via his single “sleepwalking,” which features the frontman of Owen and American Football, Mike Kinsella. Though we can’t hear Kinsella’s recognizable, plaintive vocals — just his calloused hands beautifully strumming an acoustic guitar — Mokita provides enough sadness for an entire Owen album.
Chills will form as that guitar bounces off an ethereal synth, and Mokita explains how he feels like he’s been dreaming through this year, and no one’s listening to him. There is no better way to describe this endless year than Mokita saying “I feel helpless / It’d be nice to have some hope.”
5. “gray light” by Soccer Mommy
Any fan of Bridgers, Mitski or any other female sad indie singer-songwriter will inevitably fall head over heels for Soccer Mommy. Her sophomore album, color theory, came out at the end of February, when COVID-19 started turning heads, but serious worries hadn’t quite surfaced. Nonetheless, in a hurry, the album became a reliable go-to for the hardships ahead.
The closer, “gray light,” must replicate what it feels like to die or, for Soccer Mommy, watching a loved one pass. Guided by a simple yet stunning guitar line, Soccer Mommy reveals that as she is forced to watch her mom decline, she can’t get away from the thought of her own death: “I can’t lose it, the feeling I’m going down / I can’t lose it; I’m watching my mother drown.” Unfortunately, most of us have watched someone close to us have to endure this virus, or at least know someone who has, so these words hit a little too close to home.
4. “The Story” by Conan Gray
Gray can’t be compared to anyone — because there’s no one like him and his beautifully distinct vocals. His debut LP, Kid Krow, came out exactly when everyone needed it: as soon as college kids were sent home and the virus consumed our lives. Though Gray is more well-known for his single “Maniac” and subsequently for his relatable, emo track “Heather,” there’s another doleful song from this album everyone should know: “The Story.”
Concluding the album, “The Story” is actually low-key hopeful, but the opening instrumentation of a simple acoustic guitar is particularly downcast. Gray’s blatantly emotional vocals and message carry so much weight as he starts off by revealing how much bullying ruins lives. By the end, he realizes that what’s meant to happen will, believing a prior love will find a way back into his life: “Oh, and I’m afraid that’s just the way the world works / But I think that it could work for you and me / Just wait and see; it’s not the end of the story.” The life we once knew will work its way back to us, too.
3. “10th Avenue” by Charli Adams
Charli Adams should’ve become a household name from the second her EP, Good At Being Young, dropped in January. It came out when everything was well, but little did everyone know just how much they would begin to depend on it in the coming days, growing more and more in relatability with each passing day.
The single, “10th Avenue,” opens with an unforgettable guitar line, one that’ll reverberate in your mind for days on end and never fails to pack a punch. Adams has found herself slowly fading away from her significant other, but she knows her heart belongs in New York, so she must go. She can’t help but continue to think about the moment she’s in now, though, trying to savor it before adulthood arrives and smacks her in the face. Girl, we all wish we could relish the moments of being carefree before the pandemic, too.
2. “The Contours” by Owen
Sick of inevitably screwing things up and lacerating relationships? Kinsella definitely is. In fact, his feelings have remained intact for the last two decades — since Owen’s gloomy debut album in 2001. His latest album, The Avalanche, which premiered in June, not only continues to flawlessly breathe life into emo and indie, but it conveys the feelings about this year to a T.
“The Contours,” specifically, is relatable in every aspect. Kinsella is watching himself stray further and further away from his significant other due to his selfishness, and he can’t help but hate himself for it. Surrounded by forlorn drums, strings that are to die for, subdued keys and a gorgeous guitar line, Kinsella admits he can never find his way past any obstacle, and his pain always finds its way back with the jarring lyrics “I’m in therapy; she’s in therapy / Turns out all the answers are just questions for next week’s sessions.” This song will get you thinking about every problem you thought you got over.
1. “Savior Complex” by Phoebe Bridgers
Though it was the worst year of almost everyone’s life, for Bridgers, it was probably her best. Following the release of her sophomore album, Punisher, in June, she’s now nominated for four Grammys, released an orchestral EP, performed on basically every late-night talk show and crept her way into everyone’s mind. There was no better time for her folksy, emo music to find its way to the limelight, either.
There’s never been a song quite like “Savior Complex,” something that delineates exactly what it’s like to just feel. It doesn’t even need words to make that point clear: the strings take you to a better place, while Bridgers’ soothing vocals make you feel safe, and the guitars instill hope you never thought you’d find into you. “Savior Complex” is not only the best sad song of the year, but the greatest 2020 produced in general — because it’s the song to cling to when nothing feels OK, and before you know it, things might start to look up.