In times of joy and pain alike, there’s nothing more cathartic than putting on a song that hits you where it hurts or lifts you out of a bad mood. We rarely needed music more than in the past year and a half, as the COVID-19 pandemic rocked every corner of the globe (and still is). Back in March 2020 when we all began to hunker down in our houses, few had any idea how earth-shattering this era would be, and how much ballast we would need to endure it.
The songs of 2020 and 2021 got us through one of the hardest eras in human history, connecting us across time and space and wrapping around us when we couldn’t hug each other. In order of their release, here are 20 of the songs that captured our sense of isolation and anxiety — and the songs that had us twerking in our kitchens even though every dance floor in the world had gone dark.
“Circle the Drain” by Soccer Mommy
“I’ve been falling apart these days / Split open, watching my heart go around and around,” sings Sophia Regina Allison (aka Soccer Mommy) on this ’90s-inflected, low-key tuner from early 2020. Boy, can we relate.
“Wellerman” by Nathan Evans
No 2020 TikTok trend was more surprising — or more delightful — than the sudden craze for historical sea shanties. During lockdown, there was definitely something beautiful about harmonizing across great (social) distances. One of the trend’s biggest breakouts was Evans, singing this 19th-century whaling ballad.
“People, I’ve Been Sad” by Christine and the Queens
During quarantine, nothing hit the spot quite like a song about crippling depression that you could also dance to, and Christine and the Queens’ synth-pop banger fit the bill perfectly. “It’s true that people, I’ve been missing out for way too long,” the French performer sings, with what would turn out to be tragic prescience.
“Fire” by Waxahatchee
Waxahatchee’s album “Saint Cloud” came out right around the time we were all hunkering down in our houses for the long haul, capturing the feeling of an uncertain spring blooming. “Fire,” most of all, is a mellow indie rock song that’s a tribute to self-acceptance during trying times.
“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” by Fiona Apple
Apple didn’t record her comeback album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” during lockdown, but it sure feels like she did, with its pent-up emotions and sense of restless isolation. It goes without saying that “Fetch the bolt cutters / I’ve been in here too long” was a really relatable sentiment way back in April 2020.
“Savage Remix” by Megan Thee Stallion feat. Beyoncé
Just when we all needed a song to jam to in our living rooms, Megan Thee Stallion — with a little help from fellow Houstonian Beyoncé — provided it in spades. Even if we couldn’t cut loose in a club, this bop at least made it feel like we could, aided by some athletic TikTok choreo.
“Ooh La La” by Run the Jewels feat. Greg Nice and DJ Premier
Back in summer 2020, it was hard not to tear up watching the music video for Run the Jewels’ “Ooh La La,” in which people from all walks of life throw a giant street party and burn huge piles of money in a utopian, post-capitalist future while the rap duo spit angry, joyous rhymes. Here’s hoping.
“Black Parade” by Beyoncé
On Juneteenth, just a few weeks after the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Beyoncé released this surprise charity single in celebration of Black culture in America. It’s both a moving protest song and an infinitely re-listenable R&B hit.
“I Know Alone” by HAIM
Sibling trio HAIM gave us the upbeat poolside album we needed with their summer 2020 release “Women in Music Pt. III.” The single “I Know Alone” captures the emotional moment more than any other, embodying the listlessness and loneliness of self-quarantine.
“March March” by The Chicks
The (formerly Dixie) Chicks’ “March March” is a tribute to the rich history of protest in America — which is especially poignant considering that the bandmates themselves were ostracized for speaking out against President Bush during the Iraq War. “March March” provided rousing accompaniment to a summer marked by nationwide social justice demonstrations.
“The 1” by Taylor Swift
Swift made every pop lover’s heart stop when she dropped her unannounced album “Folklore” in July 2020, which marked a turning point in her musical journey. Her song, “The 1,” epitomized the tentative optimism in the air last summer; though it’s about moving on from a breakup, it also feels like it could be about moving on from a whole way of life.
“I Know the End” by Phoebe Bridgers
Bridgers’ “Punisher” may have been the most cathartic album of 2020: an outpouring of emotions that were sad and nostalgic, but also righteously angry. The epic song, “I Know the End,” ends on a scream that could have been coming from the world’s collective unconscious.
“Turntables” by Janelle Monáe
In the days leading up to the 2020 presidential election, Monáe did her part for getting out the vote with this song she wrote for the documentary film “All In: The Fight for Democracy.” It’s a rousing, hopeful song that looks toward brighter days ahead — without ever knowing if they would come.
“911” by Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga’s long-anticipated album “Chromatica” was delayed by the pandemic, but it made for plenty of quality apartment dancing when it finally dropped. The music video for “911” is a stunning, bizarre short film that tapped into the creeping sense of dread that was defining all our lives.
“Levitating” by Dua Lipa
Escapism is the name of the game in Dua Lipa’s “Levitating,” off her album “Future Nostalgia.” The club banger climbed the global charts, and for good reason: It’s a joyous celebration of cutting loose and falling in lust that Dua Lipa once described as the opposite “dance crying.”
“Good Days” by SZA
SZA’s “Good Days,” an anthem about moving forward, is springtime in a bottle. “Good day in my mind / Safe to take a step out, get some air now, let your edge out,” she sings. In winter 2020, it felt like a precursor to a spring that we hoped would bring the world some better news.
“Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo
2021 kicked off with a song that would shoot to top the charts: “Drivers License” by Disney Channel icon, turned pop star, Rodrigo. It’s a classic breakup song that mixes dreamy piano riffs with moody pop-punk, and it helped get us all through a long, emotional winter.
“Leave the Door Open” by Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak and Silk Sonic
Mars and his collaborators went back to the 1970s for “Leave the Door Open,” a soul song that seemed to predict a summer in which we’d all be finally vaccinated and ready to get back out there. “I look too good to be alone,” Mars sings. Us too!
“Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” by Lil Nas X
Let’s face it: Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” is the coolest music video that’s been released in years. A sexy, queer, “Paradise Lost”–inspired epic, the video starts in the Garden of Eden and ends in Hell, with Nas X literally giving the devil a lap dance. The song is as empowering and iconoclastic as it is an absolute banger.
“That Funny Feeling” by Bo Burnham
You wouldn’t expect a great song to come from a comedy special. Then again, Burnham’s “Inside” is so much more than that, tracing the comedian/actor/filmmaker’s emotional journey through the pandemic. The acoustic ballad “That Funny Feeling,” a “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for our times, captures the wry, nostalgic dread of our current moment better than any song we’ve heard in years.
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