In 2020, Hindi music across films and web series was more interesting than what we heard in previous years. What helped were the lack of big-ticket releases and an increase in clutter-breaking stuff being streamed online. A marked absence of ho-hum hip-hop was a relief.

Honourable mentions that couldn’t find a place in this list of 12 include the perfectly adequate soundtracks of Khuda Haafiz (Mithoon) and Ginny Weds Sunny (multiple artists). Armaan Malik showed off an incredible range through original tunes in English, web series and non-Hindi productions, such as the super-fun Butta Bomma from Ala Vaikunthapurramloo. Anurag Saikia’s work in Thappad, Panchayat, and Mismatched was sweet.

‘Times of Music’
Standing tall above everything else is this MX Player show in which composers and artists across eras and genres rework each other’s material before a live audience. The ambitiousness and grace of some of these performances and the camaraderie between the artists made recreation a not-so-bad word in 2020.

Bappi Lahiri covers Vishal-Shekhar's Jag Ghoomeya on Times of Music.

‘What Are The Odds?’ soundtrack
In Indian film music’s world of ghee-soaked saccharine ballads, the temperamental wackiness of the love songs in What Are The Odds? was a welcome break. Sagar Desai’s pop rock felt like it woke up on the wrong side of the bed and decided to wing it through the day with a giant heart.

Lil Itch, What Are The Odds?.

‘Ghamand Kar’, ‘Tanhaji’
T-Series proteges Sachet-Parampara deliver a great track in the tradition of Ajay-Atul’s martial bangers replete with dhol, tasha, sringa, the works. Ghamand Kar lends itself well to being translated to equally ferocious genres and styles such as, perhaps, heavy metal or Wagnerian Western classical.

Ghamand Kar, Tanhaji.

‘Aur Tanha’, ‘Love Aaj Kal 2020’
An Irshad Kamil-Pritam ballad in an Imtiaz Ali film runs the risk of being repetitive. There are only so many things Ali can say about love, and just as as many limited ways for Kamil-Pritam to underscore them. Aur Tanha passes with top marks largely because of KK, whose robust voice is sorely missed at a time when most singers are trying to ape the quivering texture of Arijit Singh’s voice.

Aur Tanha, Love Aaj Kal 2020.

‘Scam 1992’ theme
Barely 90 seconds long, Achint’s theme is packed with disparate elements. There’s a man wailing? As if to warn? The recurring riff also suggests caution. A strings section in the middle deepens the grave mood. Amitabh Bacchan-like growls pop up. It’s all held together by a peppy hip-hop beat. What’s up isn’t nice at all, but it’s stylish.

Scam 1992 theme.

‘O Aashiqa’, ‘99 Songs’
AR Rahman fans were in for a delight with the superstar composer dropping two Hindi soundtracks back to back. Nothing major here, except occasional flashes of characteristic brilliance. O Aashiqa brims with deep emotion that is cooked at a low flame, unlike most contemporary Indian film music where a tune gets deep-fried between layers of harmonies.

O Aashiqa, 99 Songs.

‘Kahun’, ‘Guilty’
Kahun has the sort of lyrics (by Kausar Munir) that usually invite high notes and melodramatic flourishes. Kahun is about speaking out and yet Ankur Tewari’s tune, singing, and production are incredibly internalised – and beautiful. It is only when Faiz, Firaaq and “seene mein sulagte alfaaz” show up does Tewari’s kranti-chic seems to be missing something.

Kahun, Guilty.

‘Gulabo Sitabo’ soundtrack
An out-and-out concept album, Gulabo Sitabo has the spirit of baul coursing through it and running alongside blues, swing and Rajasthani folk. Each song is part of a whole. (For more of the same, the SonyLiv miniseries JL 50 has a nice reworking of a classic baul tune, Moner Moto Pagol Pelam Na).

Gulabo Sitabo soundtrack.

‘Ek Zindagi’, ‘Angrezi Medium’
Avril Lavigne-like spunky princess rock makes this version of Ek Zindagi much better than the one in Hindi Medium. Given the anthemic nature of the chorus, it works superbly in an upbeat rock set-up. Too bad that the song ends so quickly.

Ek Zindagi, Angrezi Medium.

‘Chal Ghar Chalein’, ‘Malang’
No one does dard pop better than Mithoon. But even he can suffocate a tune with buckets of schmaltz. Luckily, Chal Ghar Chalein rings with a sense of genuine pathos and transcends the template.

Chal Ghar Chalein, Malang.

‘Paatal Lok’ score
The gloomy landscape created by background score stylists Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkarneither calls for attention nor can be ignored. The Paatal Lok score snakes through the roughly 360-minute series as a character in itself, dipping in and out of the sound design, hiding in the shadows, appearing only when necessary.

Cheeni's Theme, Paatal Lok.

‘Bandish Bandits’ soundtrack
The Bandits half of the album is textbook material on how to compose for rom-coms. The Bandish part neatly packs Hindustani classic ragas into crisp pop songs. The studied sobriety of this raga-pop is a bit limiting, but together with the out-and-out classical pieces and the bouncy bits, the soundtrack is a full-course meal from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.

Sajan Bin, Bandish Bandits.