We’ve said it countless times, but 2020 was just an absolute shitshow from start to finish. Australia started the year up in smoke and is ending it in the midst of a once-in-a-century global pandemic.
The pandemic meant that the music industry – both here and overseas – was largely unable to operate as per usual, with lockdowns and social distancing restrictions meaning traditional touring was off the cards for the majority of 2020. But despite it being one of the most difficult years ever for the industry, there were still a handful of spectacular moments in music.
From the Fire Fight Australia concert early in the year to the rise of livestreaming, new music from the likes of System of a Down and Midnight Oil and heavy music creeping its way back into the mainstream, take a look back at some of the most memorable music stories of 2020 with us below.
Billie Eilish couldn’t help but win everything
2019 was undeniably the year of Billie Eilish, with the release of and subsequent domination by her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Maybe it was to be expected, but the success and accolades didn’t stop after the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve.
First, Eilish made history with the 2019 Hottest 100, becoming the first ever solo female artist in history to top the countdown – thanks to her all conquering hit ‘Bad Guy’. The win also made her the youngest artist to ever top the countdown.
Then, a matter of days later, Eilish again made history with her monumental sweep at the Grammy Awards. She took home all four big awards – Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best New Artist. She is the first artist to achieve such a feat since Christopher Cross did it in 1981.
The Fire Fight Australia concert raised millions for bushfire relief
Back in February, as Australia continued to battle through a horrific bushfire season, over two dozen artists came together for Fire Fight, a benefit concert held at ANZ Stadium in Sydney and broadcast live on televisions across the country.
From Queen to Hilltop Hoods, k.d. lang to Grinspoon, Baker Boy to John Farnham and Olivia Newton-John, acts from all over the country and the world rallied together to help us through one of the worst bushfire seasons we’ve seen on record.
Hosted by Celeste Barber, the event ended up raising a staggering $9.85 million, thanks to almost a complete removal or heavy discount of all overhead fees.
Livestreams, Isol-Aid, ‘The Sound’ and others brought live music to fans virtually
When the pandemic and resultant restrictions around mass gathering meant a shutdown of the live music industry in Australia, people got creative. Nick Cave, Courtney Barnett, Billie Eilish, Middle Kids and more all delivered immersive, high-quality livestream concerts that, while obviously unable to recapture the real thing, were a salve in a time where IRL gigs largely couldn’t take place. Hell, even the long-defunct Powderfinger got together to remotely crank some classics as part of their One Night Lonely reunion concert – raising nearly half a million dollars for Support Act and Beyond Blue in the process.
It wasn’t just the artists who put in the work, though. Live-streaming festival Isol-Aid kicked off in March of this year as venue restrictions were introduced, and there have been nearly 40 iterations since it launched. A stack of homegrown and overseas artists have played intimate, affecting sets from their bedrooms since the first edition, with donations supporting artists along with important organisations.
The Sound, meanwhile, has brought Aussie music to television screens for two seasons. The ABC-broadcast series has seen great performances from the likes of DMA’S, Thelma Plum, Angie McMahon, Paul Kelly, Electric Fields, Miiesha, the Avalanches and more. Read how the show’s creators managed to make a live music TV show in the midst of a pandemic in our interview with producer Saul Shtein here.
Midnight Oil returned with their collaborative Makarrata Project
This year, legendary Aussie rockers Midnight Oil returned with their first new music in almost two decades. The resulting mini-album, The Makarrata Project, saw them collaborate with a slew of First Nations artists including Jessica Mauboy, Tasman Keith, Gurrumul Yunupingu, Dan Sultan, Alice Skye, and more.
The project’s goal was to elevate the Uluru Statement from the Heart. As frontman Peter Garrett commented at the time, “These songs are about recognising that our shared history needs settlement, and that more than ever, as the Statement From The Heart proclaims, we need to walk together to create a better future.”
There was some sad news out of the Midnight Oil camp this year too, as longtime bassist Bones Hillman passed away, aged 62.
System of a Down released their first new songs in 15 years
After going a decade and a half without releasing any new music, System of a Down returned with not one, but two new songs. ‘Protect the Land’ and ‘Genocidal Humanoidz’ were released by the band – whose members are all of Armenian heritage – to raise awareness and funds amid conflict in their cultural homeland of Artsakh. They were able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Armenia Fund, an organisation that provides humanitarian relief.
“I’m not doing this as an artist for myself or for System of a Down or for any of the guys in the band; we’re all doing this for our people,” frontman Serj Tankian explained at the time.
“So this is not a creative decision, this is not a business decision. This is a decision of activism, and that takes precedence over all other things for us.”
It’s hard to think of a song that sparked more conversation this year than Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion‘s bold assertion of sex-positivity, ‘WAP’. The huge collab arrived back in August alongside a star-studded video that featured cameos from the likes of Normani and Rosalía, garnering over 26 million views in its first day alone.
While the track was widely praised (Kevin Parker called it a “perfect song” earlier this month), it predictably pissed off a bunch of nerds, for having the audacity to celebrate women’s sexuality in an open and frank manner. Though, if you’re upsetting the likes of conservative dorks like Ben Shapiro, you’re definitely doing something right.
There was also, of course, a swath of mash-ups and covers. ‘WAP’ got mashed up with the likes of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Let Me Down Easy’ by Gang of Youths, and Scottish rockers Biffy Clyro divided the internet with their cringe-inducing take on the song.
Ultimately, it’s the most memorable song of the year by a long shot: an absolute banger with powerful, confident lyricism and delivery, excellent production and a lasting cultural impact.
‘Triple J Counts Down The Hottest 100 Of The Decade’
Riiiiight before the pandemic shut the world down – literally the weekend of – triple J took on the mammoth task of counting down the Hottest 100 songs of the decade past, as voted by listeners.
Taking the top spot was a song that – and an artist – that has never won before, with Tame Impala’s ‘The Less I Know The Better’. The song originally came in at #4 on the Hottest 100 back in 2015.
“I can’t describe how much of a big thing that is to me,” Tame Impala brain Kevin Parker said of the ranking.
“More than anything else that other people talk about being a huge deal. You know, like headlining festivals or Grammys or whatever. Like the Hottest 100 is the closest thing to my heart of all that kind of stuff. So that’s unbelievable.”
The countdown was also notable as a slew of songs that never made the original countdown featured, including RÜFÜS DU SOL’s ‘Innerbloom’, Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’, Azealia Banks’ ‘212’ and more.
Heavy Music Creeps Back Into The Mainstream
It’s a question that’s long been pondered by heavy music pundits since noughties nu-metal and pop-punk bellowed their last angst-ridden choruses in the pop charts; is rock “dead”? And does it ever have a hope on the Highway To Hell of finding its way back to mainstream success? Well, the pandemic may have killed the live show, but it’s seemingly revived the rockstar.
Let’s take stock, shall we? This year, we had rapper Machine Gun Kelly making his successful foray into pop-punk (just don’t let him see your NewBalance kicks or he’ll flip it). We had Miley Cyrus releasing a critically acclaimed rock LP and teasing a Metallica covers album. We had two of the world’s most influential modern popstars, Halsey and Yungblud, each collaborating with metalcore kings Bring Me The Horizon on their Post Human: Survival Horror EP; one of the biggest heavy music releases of the whole damn year. We had another one of the world’s hottest pop acts — rapper Doja Cat — delivering a widely frothed heavy metal rendition of her hit ‘Say So’ live at the MTV European Music Awards which went viral online (unfortunately it also ripped off a guitar solo from Sydney’s own prog prodigy Plini, but thankfully the situation has since been peacefully rectified). While closer to home, we saw Amy Shark team up with legendary punk drummer Travis Barker for her earworm comeback single, ‘C’MON’.
Whether this trend just amounts to bored popstars trying to shake up their image by dipping their toes into the ‘edgier’ & more marginalised music genres, or whether it’s a larger sign of an impending paradigm shift for popular music, only 2021 will tell.