2020 Was The Year Of Dancing By Ourselves

Dec 9, 2020
Originally published on February 18, 2021 10:12 am

In 2020, there were many ways to understand the year in music; this week, we're considering four. Dance music is a communal and carnal act, a collective catharsis charged by pulsing beats and sweating bodies. What cruel irony that 2020 produced such body-rockin' hits as dance floors stood empty. By the same token, a wide spectrum of dance music — pop, reggaeton, house, K-pop, J-pop, disco, hyperpop, R&B — transformed bedrooms into clubs, kitchens into discotheques and backyards into glow-stick raves. These 17 songs make a mixtape diary of 2020 full of feels and fantasy.


Dua Lipa, "Levitating"

Before lockdown, I lived openly as a bisexual college student, blissfully dancing in gay nightclubs. Moving in with my parents meant closeting myself. I unmasked in my childhood bedroom, bouncing to disco Dua Lipa to feel free. Shaking my hips and waving my arms to funky synth beats and syncopated handclaps were the moments I felt most myself this year. —Star McCown


La Doña, "Algo Nuevo"

In the backdrop of activities that are "good" for me — working out, cooking, riding my bike — I tried to channel the music I'd usually get lit to. But during quarantine, it didn't quite hit the same. La Doña's bonafide bop for ethereal bisexuals, with her Spanglish "femmeton" over folkloric trumpets, gave me dance breaks between my silly little squats and roasted veggie recipes. When the loneliness or boredom began to feel too overwhelming, a little "Algo Nuevo" spin in my living room helped remind me that letting go of who I was, even before March, is necessary to make room for the new, healthier and honestly more fulfilling life this year has forced me to build. —Isabella Gomez Sarmiento


SG Lewis, Channel Tres & Robyn, "Impact"

Pounding bass and futuristic synths swirl together on "Impact," a house track so physical your feet may begin to move involuntarily. Channel Tres' marble-smooth baritone lulls you into a dance-floor hypnosis as Robyn's baby-voiced soprano soon blasts in like an aurora of technicolor light, lifting you to epic heights. Suddenly, you're not dancing alone in your kitchen anymore — you're an iridescent bird swooping over a rainforest, a pink dolphin plunging into the ocean. For a brief moment, life feels full of limitless possibility. —Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED


Carly Rae Jepsen, "This is What They Say"

In May, queen of sequels Carly Rae Jepsen dropped a B-sides collection to complement last year's Dedicated without much warning but with perfect timing. "This Is What They Say," a standout from an album full of solo-dance-party-starters, is pure Carly: breathy, lovesick, slightly corny and perfect for lip-syncing when you've gone stir-crazy in your apartment. —Marissa Lorusso


Chara + Yuki, "楽しい蹴伸び (Tanoshii Kenobi)"

Chara and Yuki, veterans of the '90s J-pop scene, swirl helium harmonies and haute-couture synths into a sweet elixir. They come from a vintage when "bop" meant the beat's buoyant cadence and not just a vibe. When it was released way back in the before-times (late January), "Tanoshii Kenobi" had me dreaming of summer, sunshine and silly cocktails — it still does, with bittersweet pangs as I digitally clink a glass of rosé to friends over video chat, wiggling in my armchair, hoping for IRL hangs soon. —Lars Gotrich


Róisín Murphy, "Murphy's Law - Extended Mix"

Whenever I start brooding, irritable and restless, over the collective loss of live music, I dance it out to "Murphy's Law," a no-frills disco standard. Sparse drums build into an energetic crescendo of house synth, a liberating explosion. Róisín Murphy sings, with hope, "I won't be a prisoner, locked up in this house." By the time she urges the listener to keep on, I've sweat enough to tide me over for another day. —LaTesha Harris


Bad Bunny, "Yo Perreo Sola"

"Yo Perreo Sola" calls on listeners to embrace solitude. In the song, Bad Bunny describes a fiercely independent dancer secure in her singledom; she also attracts attention she doesn't need. The video, featuring Bad Bunny in drag, reinforces the message: If she doesn't want to dance with you, respect that. "Yo Perreo Sola" empowers listeners to resist status-quo sexual harassment and envision a future when we'll have no fear of twerking alone. —Elie Levine


Rina Sawayama, "XS (Bree Runway Remix)"

What I miss about nightlife is running into capital-P Personalities — those glittery, self-invented creatures of the club. So I sought out their voices on record, making fabulous imaginary friends. This remix, which showers hedonism over crunchy guitar riffs, features two of my faves: dance-minded rock god Rina Sawayama and the irrepressible Missy Elliott inheritor Bree Runway. —Ann Powers


EOB, "Shangri-La"

Glastonbury was one of the many, many music festivals that were canceled this year, but thankfully, EOB (solo moniker of Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien) kept the spirit alive with "Shangri-La." Named for the all-night dance party that takes up a corner of the Glastonbury grounds, this was the track I turned way up on nights when I would have given anything to feel the magic of glow-stick dancing with my best friends in a field. —Raina Douris, World Cafe

Ase Manual, "Lawdaa Mercy"

Few tracks have made me grit my teeth at the nonexistence of nightlife more painfully, but if you have the jaw for it, allow yourself a five-minute, 22-second fantasy of being gently ladled onto a dance floor. "Lawdaa Mercy" may raise easy parallels to artists like Moodymann or Deforrest Brown Jr., who use electronic patter to make music like lava gravy (the former) or ratify the crownhood of Black origins in dance music (the latter), but this Ase Manual guy is far too good at blending the what of his music with its why. Until the night we properly see this track out, and true to the song's title, there's not much to do but moan. —Mina Tavakoli


Romy, "Lifetime"

As I wrote for NPR Music's 100 Best Songs of 2020, Romy makes music "meant to elevate your heart rate while activating your tear ducts. Written and recorded in lockdown, 'Lifetime' is a worthy addition to the crying-on-the-dancefloor canon: radiant with day-glo energy, pulsing with end-of-night abandon, it articulates a promise to be there that's aware of the limitations of such words." —Lyndsey McKenna


The Killers, "Caution"

When I crave the vivacious idiocy of a girls' night out, "Caution" evokes the exhilarating nostalgia of the Killers' danceable classics — you know, the ones that bring everyone to the dance floor. I bop around my apartment to the song's exultant rhythm and a familiar voice, wondering when I will again, as Brandon Flowers sings, throw caution to the wind. —Marisa Manzi

BUMPER, "You Can Get It"

One of the best shows I ever attended was Japanese Breakfast at a church, simply because I love to sit and a pew is perfect for that. But I wanted to spring out of my seat when Michelle Zauner put on a disco drumbeat and impersonated a robot for "Machinist." That felt like just a predecessor, however, to her project with Crying's Ryan Galloway. With side-scroller synths and fun trills sprinkled throughout, BUMPER's "You Can Get It" is a perfect bop-in-the-kitchen serenade. —Sam Yellowhorse Kesler

ericdoa, "movinglikeazombie (umru remix)"

If ericdoa's "movinglikeazombie" was a punch to the brain, umru's remix is a never-ending psychedelic barrage. It's an incredible feat of online collaboration, clocking in at nearly eight minutes and featuring a small army of hyperpop's finest artists: SEBii, angelus, kmoe, Lewis Grant, savepoint, Tony Velour, emotegi, d0llywood1 and 4kmirage. And they each deliver exhilarating verses, navigating umru's thunderous soundscape with their respective quirks and thrills. There will one day be a DJ in some club who is brave enough to play this song in its entirety. I pray I am there for it. —Mano Sundaresan


Omar Apollo, "Kamikaze"

Omar Apollo's "Kamikaze" creates fire and ice. It's a mixture of '80s funk and smooth R&B — lively enough to get you sliding across the room, but slow enough to get you into a two-step. On the track, he paints a picture of a naïve boy buried in manipulative love and slowly digging himself out. Apollo's lyrics will have you stop mid-sway to shout them back at your speaker and remind yourself that yes, you are way better without your ex. —Farrah Safari


BTS, "Telepathy"

BTS writes music made for movement, but where the seven-piece boy band's clean choreography relies on sharp lines that look tight in formation, the molten bass of "Telepathy" inspires a certain looseness of carriage. If you close your eyes and melt into the music's funk-lite flair, you can almost imagine the way its laid-back bass might sound shaking the walls as the music pumps in from another room. In 2020, I danced to leave my troubles stuck in the stillness; I danced to stomp them into oblivion. As BTS dance captain J-Hope might say: Who cares, just dance. —Cyrena Touros


Jessie Ware, "What's Your Pleasure"

"What's Your Pleasure" captures the anticipation just before you hit the dance floor, when the beat drops and everyone around you prepares for the incoming rush of euphoria. But for me, those pulsating beats cloaked in Jessie Ware's voice took me out of my childhood bedroom. The directives — "push, press, more, less" and "stop, go, fast, slow" — both command and convince us to follow her voice and meet Ware on her plane of existence, at the discotheque. —Aditi Mukund

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Without clubs, concerts and nights out for most of this year, how did people dance in 2020? NPR Music's Lars Gotrich says...

LARS GOTRICH, BYLINE: I spent a lot of my year dancing in my kitchen and in my living room with my 2-year-old trying to glean some kind of glee out of this time.

SIMON: He felt other people were probably coping in a similar fashion, so Lars put together a list from NPR Music contributors and called it 2020 Was The Year Of Dancing By Ourselves. He included his own favorite song, of course.

GOTRICH: So I personally chose a song called "Tanoshii Kenobi" by Chara and YUKI.


CHARA AND YUKI: (Singing in Japanese).

GOTRICH: It's very effervescent and bubbly and makes you want to think of summer sunshine and silly drinks.


CHARA AND YUKI: (Singing in Japanese).

GOTRICH: My favorite thing to do is to string up some really cheap lights and just pretend like I'm in a disco for a night. And, you know, for just, like, three minutes, I can just share that fantasy with my family.


CHARA AND YUKI: (Singing in Japanese).

MARISSA LORUSSO, BYLINE: My name is Marissa Lorusso, and I am an editor for NPR Music. The song that I chose for the list is "This Is What They Say" by Carly Rae Jepsen.


CARLY RAE JEPSEN: (Singing) This is what they say.

LORUSSO: And I chose this song because I think it is, like, pure, perfect Carly Rae. It's got that heartache element. It's got that danceable element. It's, like, just the tiniest bit corny but in the way that people really truly are when they are, like, falling in love.


JEPSEN: (Singing) Feels like - never gonna be the same.

LORUSSO: And it's a very good solo dance party soundtrack.


JEPSEN: (Singing) This is what they say.

LORUSSO: I also think you could be dancing by yourself, like, going for a run in the park and listening to a pump-up song and just, like, thinking about how good that feels. Or you're, like, waiting in line to check out at the grocery store and everyone's wearing masks and it's really crowded in there, but you have headphones in, and you're listening to something that makes you feel really good.


BTS: (Singing in Korean).

CYRENA TOUROS, BYLINE: These are songs to get you out of your head, to put you back in your body.


BTS: (Singing in Korean).

TOUROS: Hi, I'm Cyrena Touros. I'm an NPR music contributor, and I picked BTS's "Telepathy."


BTS: (Singing in Korean).

TOUROS: A lot of good pop music this year applied a low-pass filter, which is what makes a song sound like it's coming from another room or sounds like you're hearing it from underwater. You know, it simulates that feeling of, like, climbing underground to get to a club, and you hear the bass shaking the walls. It elicits that excitement of getting ready for a night out for me.

SIMON: Music critic Ann Powers found herself cooking a lot this year.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: So you need a little beat to keep you going as you chop the 10,000th onion of your year. And that's where dancing happened for me - completely in the kitchen.

SIMON: She picked a song by Rina Sawayama and Bree Runway.

POWERS: What she's combined in her sound is super-attractive to me as someone who came up with rock 'n' roll and particularly '90s rock because she loves her some grunge, you know? We hear those guitars in her songs, and we hear it in this song which is called "XS."


RINA SAWAYAMA: (Singing) And I'm worth it. Gimme just a little bit...

BREE RUNWAY: (Singing) More...

SAWAYAMA: (Singing) ...Little bit of...

RUNWAY: (Singing) Excess.

SAWAYAMA: (Singing) Oh, me. Oh, my.

POWERS: And then Bree's rap adds in a whole element of women's autonomy when she says...


RUNWAY: (Rapping) It's a ring on my finger. Of course, I said yes. I ain't married to no man. I'm married to success.

POWERS: And I love that.

SIMON: Contributor Elie Levine says this theme of independence is strong in her pick, a song by the Puerto Rican artist Bad Bunny.


NESI: (Singing in Spanish).

ELIE LEVINE, BYLINE: It's about a woman who is totally secure in being single. She attracts plenty of attention, but she doesn't want it, and she definitely doesn't need the attention.


BAD BUNNY: (Singing in Spanish).

SIMON: Endless contributor Star McCown says she understands that.

STAR MCCOWN, BYLINE: Dancing by myself is basically just turning up music in my room and moving around like nobody's watching because no one is watching.


DUA LIPA: (Singing) You want me. I want you, baby. My sugarboo, I'm levitating.

MCCOWN: For the list, I picked Dua Lipa's "Levitating."


LIPA: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I got you.

SIMON: Which makes her feel...

MCCOWN: Liberation (laughing) - like literally levitating, feeling like you're free.

SIMON: Lars Gotrich agrees.

GOTRICH: It just goes to show you that dance music is extremely personal not only in music but way of movement and being.

SIMON: Kind of like the way I dance along to our theme music written by BJ Leiderman.


LIPA: (Singing) I see us written in the stars. We can go wherever, so let's do it now or never. Baby, nothing's ever, ever too far. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.