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Top 50 Songs of 2020

on December 03, 2020, 1:00pm
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The 2020 edition of our Annual Report continues today with our Top 50 Songs of 2020. If you haven’t already, check out our Top 50 Albums of 2020, which came out earlier in the week. Also, be sure to tune in next week as we begin handing out our annual accolades and continue looking back on the strange year that was 2020.

Upon being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame some years ago, Tom Waits said, “We love music, but what we really want is for music to love us back.” Believe it or not, it felt like music did that in 2020. For me, anyway. I know that it’s easy to see the world through pandemic goggles right now or strictly through the lens of racial injustice or political turmoil. Tragedy and frustration that keeps piling on can definitely cloud our vision or color our window on the world. But I think I’ll feel the same even after the dust settles and we hopefully find ourselves in healthier and more just and equitable times. It just felt like instead of having to reach for songs this year, songs sought us out instead.

So many artists, whether it be Charli XCX putting out an album of “quarantine songs,” Phoebe Bridgers performing from a bathtub on late night, or Neil Young moseying about a campfire, delivered songs and performances that made us understand that none of us are suffering alone through these uncertain times. Acts like Run the Jewels, Public Enemy, and Beyoncé gave voice to our frustrations and help put purpose in our step as we marched in the streets. Hopeful songs from pop artists like Lady Gaga and BTS reminded us that it’s utterly human to dance and smile and toss our hair even in the wake of loss and during the process of grieving. The late John Prine even gifted us one last song before he died — one that somehow makes us grateful for life despite the pain and senselessness of this year’s devastation.

As I get older, I start to suspect that I’m somewhat full of shit. I might be. Maybe music didn’t embrace us any more this year than it has in the past. Maybe songs have just been doing what songs always do and we’ve latched on a little tighter out of necessity, hearing our feelings in a chord change or seeing ourselves in the lyrics of a verse tucked away between choruses. If that’s the case, I’m fine with that, too. All I know is that as dark and bleak as 2020 felt, the songs that found their way onto my playlists and into my ears and heart helped keep hope alive, and if that’s not music loving us back, I’m not sure what is.

These are the songs we loved, but, more importantly, the ones that loved us back in 2020. As always, be safe and take care.

–Matt Melis
Editorial Director


50. Cardi B – “WAP” feat. Megan Thee Stallion

Sounds Like: Women finally getting the good sex they deserve (and maybe even getting off first, if you can imagine that)

Key Lyric: “Now get a bucket and a mop … Macaroni in a pot”

Why It Matters: It’s no secret that women fully expressing their sexuality often scares the crap out of people, especially men. (Sigh. It’s yet another ugly consequence of this devilish and archaic little thing called patriarchy.) So, when Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion do just that, and in great graphic detail, it’s actually more than just a fleeting, viral pop culture moment. “WAP” — that’s “wet-ass pussy” for SEO purposes and to make the conservatives gasp — is a statement that not only do women deserve a damn good time under the sheets, but they definitely have the right to talk about it and ask for it in the same way their partners might. Free of shame, free of judgement. If you’re anything like Tucker Carlson or Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler and can’t handle a hot, steamy pot of Velveeta, then allow me to escort you out of the kitchen. –Lake Schatz


49. Shamir – “On My Own”

Sounds Like: Dancing alone in your living room and realizing you’re actually happy

Key Lyric: “I always thought my heart was freezing/ And I’m just cold/ But I refuse to fucking suffer/ Just to feel whole”

Why It Matters: Shamir Bailey’s “On My Own” may be the quintessential example of the pandemic taking a song about one thing and making it mean something else to much of its audience. The irresistible dance-pop jam was originally intended as a response to a recent breakup, Shamir insisting to himself that he could make it, well, on his own. But with such a timely and catchy chorus of “I don’t mind to live my life alone,” who wouldn’t mistake it for a quarantine anthem about enduring isolation? Whether “On My Own” will regain its intended meaning post-pandemic remains to be seen, but no matter how you interpret the message, Shamir has given us a self-reliance anthem we can boogie to. –Matt Melis


48. Dinner Party – “Freeze Tag” feat. Cordae and Phoelix

Sounds Like: Two generations meeting to find that some things never change

Key Lyric: “They told me put my hands up behind my head/ I think they got the wrong one/ I’m sick and tired of runnin’/ I been searchin’ where the love went”

Why It Matters: Jazz and hip-hop have been groundbreaking bedfellows for decades now, going back to the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, De La Soul, and several others, but it might be Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly that gave jazz rap or jazz hop the nudge it needed to return to the radar of the hip-hop mainstream. From there, we can appreciate a supergroup like Dinner Party (Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, and 9th Wonder) and friends bringing those worlds together. In the case of “Freeze Tag”, rapper Cordae brings a voice of youthful promise to a silky-smooth slow jam that laments the dangers Black folks face at the hands of police and wonders if it will ever change. In a year that saw the majority of a nation rise up in protest against systemic racism in law enforcement, that’s a question that’s been on all of our minds. –Matt Melis


47. Dawes – “Didn’t Fix Me”

Sounds Like: Sighing into the shoulder of someone who really cares

Key Lyric: “And even though I’m feeling stronger than I/ Ever thought I could/ It still didn’t fix me”

Why It Matters: Dawes have a knack for compacting a universal truth into a deceptively simple five-minute song. “Didn’t Fix Me” is easily their best example of this since “A Little Bit of Everything” off 2011’s Nothing Is Wrong. As sad as it is, the Good Luck with Whatever track is also a gentle reminder that it’s okay not to feel okay — a mental health mantra of recent years that now has its theme. Nothing cleanses the spirit like a good cry, after all, and if the song itself doesn’t do it for you, check out the beautifully drawn music video. — Ben Kaye


46. Spillage Village – “Baptize” with J.I.D and EARTHGANG feat. Ant Clemons

Sounds Like: The most lit church service in history

Key Lyric: “Blah, blah blah, sinnin’ and shit/ Adam and Eve dumb ass/ Apple eatin’ dumb ass”

Why It Matters: Spillage Village is a supergroup made of old friends, most prominently J.I.D and the MCs of EARTHGANG. What makes “Baptize” such a spiritual experience is the contrast between them and how they each approach the role of outcast preacher in a different way. Johnny Venus leads things off with a staccato verse on police brutality while J.I.D’s epiphanies are a bit more materialistic, and Doctor Dot is content to stay “Burnin’ that bush like Moses.” The striking track features brief moments of screaming and lovely singing by Ant Clemons. Whatever gods you follow, “Baptize” has the power to stir the soul. –Wren Graves


45. Charli XCX – “claws”

Sounds Like: A roller coaster in a glitchy computer video game

Key Lyric: “I’m not shy, make you sigh/ Slip and slide up my thighs/ Juicy just like clementines”

Why It Matters: Charli XCX’s quarantine-recorded album, how i’m feeling right now, captures the futurist pop star in the very specific present moment of the pandemic, a time when emotions are plentiful and span the entire spectrum of feeling. There are lows, obviously, but also intense highs, magnified by the vacuum in which we currently live. For the UK artist, spending lockdown with a loved one has led to something of a “rebirth” of their relationship. Remember what that’s like? A surge so thrilling you’re giddy, speechless, and can only muster up the word “like” to convey your adoration? 100 gecs member Dylan Brady matches Charli’s energy here with equally frenzied, excitable production that’s fractured and glitchy until pieced back together during a euphoric build-up flurried with hope — an especially coveted feeling during these very strange times. –Lake Schatz


44. Choir Boy – “Complainer”

Sounds Like: Dropping whatever you’re doing and taking a much-needed dance break

Key Lyric: “Oh my life/ What a pitiful thing to hear/ It’s a phrase so funny/ When it’s spoken so sincere”

Why It Matters: “Complainer” is a track for everyone who likes to pretend everything is terrible, when things are, as Choir Boy frontman Adam Klopp effortlessly sings in his signature too-beautiful-for-this-world voice, “not that bad.” More so, it’s a song where we’re allotted a 3:38 pause on the stress of life to stop whatever we’re doing and dance, particularly now, when life really is that bad. It’s a joyful, shrug-it-off track at its heart, tucked inside a driving bassline, grooving melody, and sparkling synthesizers, and you may find yourself listening to it over and over and over again. –Annie Black


43. 070 Shake – “Guilty Conscience”

Sounds Like: Trying to turn off your mind when it’s racing a million thoughts per second

Key Lyric: “Why you so close, but you feel so far?/ You look like the moon in the mornin’/ Jaded, faded, almost gone”

Why It Matters: Cheatin’ songs are as old as the craft of songwriting itself, but rarely do we find both parties hiding illicit trysts from one another. More interesting, though, is that 070 Shake takes an old idea — infidelity — and goes someplace new with it. Sung from the perspective of a young man, Shake explores the fragility of masculinity and how, beneath a rough exterior, men have to wrestle with their emotions, including guilt and hurt, just as much as anyone. That turmoil feels all the more tangible as Shake shifts between flexing her voice (rising on choruses and grooving old-school between) and rap-singing, like a tortured mind trying to free itself from agonizing over every detail of a betrayal. –Matt Melis


42. Yves Tumor – “Gospel for a New Century”

Sounds Like: A demon’s love song played through the horn of the devil

Key Lyric: “This ain’t by design, girl/ Take it softer/ You know I’m out my mind, girl”

Why It Matters: Love is chaotic, a push-pull between past desires and learned lessons guiding future decisions. It’s so rarely the flowery, elegant fairy tale of sweet piano ballads. Yves Tumor acknowledges that lack of simplicity with “Gospel for a New Century”, both in their twisted, torn lyrics and the frenzied composition. Horns bashing against a rhythm that’s half-arena rock, half-grindhouse score create an organized cacophony trumpeting straight from Hell. Some might call it terrifying — particularly if heard alongside the music video from director Isamaya Ffrench — but that’s exactly what romance is, especially when it falls apart. –Ben Kaye


41. Awich – “Shook Shook”

Sounds Like: The rap banger that dunked the heads of other rap bangers in the toilet

Key Lyric: “Fuck is you sayin/ You know my name/ Better duck when I bang”

Why It Rules: Okinawan rapper Awich has an appreciation of the way words sound that seems reserved for the truly bilingual. Moving fluently between Japanese and English, she punctuates her phrases with onomatopoeic syllables, never “shooting a gun” when she can “brrrt brrrt” instead. The result is one of the year’s most visceral musical experiences. You don’t have to speak Japanese to get it, and knowledge of English might not be required either. This is the kind of song that bypasses the ear, shocking the nervous system before you quite know what hit you. –Wren Graves


40. Gorillaz – “Aries” feat. Peter Hook

Sounds Like: The beach between Joy Division and New Order

Key Lyric: “I can’t play a happy tune on my own, so stay by my side”

Why It Matters: Sometimes pop culture is just fated to work. Case in point: “Aries”. The song dropped weeks into a worldwide quarantine, a time when reality began to truly set in for everyone — that the things we love, the things we cherish, and the things we take for granted will be at our fingertips (or, rather, six feet away) until further noticed. So, hearing Gorllaz’s Damon Albarn hum, “‘Cause I feel so isolated without you,” hit harder than it would have any other time. But, we can connect through song, and Albarn does exactly that on “Aries” as he reunites with his UK brethren. Peter Hook, it’s been a while. –Michael Roffman


39. Lady Gaga – “Rain on Me” feat. Ariana Grande

Sounds Like: Getting baptized in a club

Key Lyric: “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive”

Why It Matters: “Stupid Love” may have been the best song on Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, but “Rain on Me” is the album’s definitive 2020 anthem. Gaga and Ariana Grande, both still grappling with their own deep traumas, remind us there’s always a way out. That whether or not we believe it in this very moment, eventually we’ll find ourselves on the other side of the nightmare. Until then? We’ll sob and throw it down in our tiny apartments, with the salty tears stinging our fresh open wounds. But we’ll find comfort in the fifth banana bread loaf we just baked and in the fact that we’re still here and trekking along, nine. long. months. into quarantine. No one ever said the healing process would be pretty. (Side note: How fucking amazing will it be when the pandemic is over and we can *finally* dance to this house-pop banger in a proper club setting? I get chills just thinking about it.) –Lake Schatz


38. John Carpenter – “Weeping Ghost”

Sounds Like: The Master of Horror has returned to post-apocalyptic New York

Key Lyric: No words on this — could you imagine — but the scale that drops in around 1:20 is delirious and dizzying in all the right ways.

Why It Matters: The last half-decade has been good to John Carpenter. Or should we say, John Carpenter has been good to us over the last half-decade. With his Lost Themes series, the Hollywood icon has proven why we listen to his scores like pop music — they’re catchy, they’re delectable, they’re the soundtracks to our lives. “Weeping Ghost”, off his forthcoming third volume, descends upon us like a thick fog. It’s a highway marauder, sent from a distant wasteland, and Carpenter never stops grooving. This isn’t happenstance: If you recall from our 2018 Composer of the Year interview, Carpenter is no stranger to the ways his music has turned into a dance party, and this is certainly headlining material. It’s just a shame Snake Plissken isn’t around to pair it with another misadventure. Perhaps, it’s on us to find one for ourselves. –Michael Roffman


37. Rina Sawayama – “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)”

Sounds Like: The patriarchy being trampled on a crowded dance floor

Key Lyric: “You should never be ashamed to have it all/ Yeah, yeah/ It’s gonna be okay/ Yeah, you’ve come a long way”

Why It Matters: This list is full of sharp commentaries on gender roles and norms, but it’s unlikely that another one hits the dance floor any harder than “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)” by former Artist of the Month Rina Sawayama. The song calls out how women may have to adopt male behaviors (and often the more obnoxious ones) in order to succeed in some situations, and if they can’t or won’t be “one of the boys,” they get labeled a “bitch.” Here, Sawayama repurposes that insult by taking matters to the dance floor where “bitch” can be a term of empowerment and women can have the same confidence as “the boys” without all the BS that comes along with it. In her own words, “I wanted to make a club fashion banger that makes you feel like THAT BITCH whoever you are.” Mission accomplished. –Matt Melis


36. The Chicks – “Gaslighter”

Sounds Like: A triumphant return in the nick of time

Key Lyric: “You think it’s justifiable, I think it’s pretty cruel/ And you know you lie best when you lie to you”

Why It Matters: Not only is “Gaslighter” a kick-ass track, but it’s also the first single off of what was The Chicks’ first record in 14 years, and what a triumphant comeback it was. Produced by Jack Antonoff, in pure Chicks fashion, the vocals are perfectly harmonized and the lyrics are biting. While the song is technically about band member Natalie Maines’ divorce, the chorus could be about any man, which for many of us can be supremely relatable. “Gaslighter” is a reminder that The Chicks, by any name, still reign supreme, despite being away for more than a decade. –Annie Black


35. Perfume Genius – “On the Floor”

Sounds Like: That person you just can’t shake from your thoughts or heart

Key Lyric: “The rise and fall of his chest on me (Mmm)/ I’m trying, but still, it’s all I see”

Why It Matters: The urgency of an album title like Set My Heart on Fire Immediately — or even a song called “On the Floor” — might seem over the top in a year that most of us spent all dressed up with nowhere to dance (or, more likely, binge watching trash television in sweatpants). But leave it to Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) to remind us that so much of life’s drama takes place between our ears and beating in our chest. In the case of Hadreas, it’s the intoxication of a crush that takes over his life and turns into obsession, but as the singer explains, the song is more about the possibility of something like love and how it impacts us in profound ways. In a year in which all of us have been pushed and pulled and prodded by the most powerful of emotions — even while barely leaving the house — Hadreas’ song explains how such paralysis could leave anyone on the floor emotionally. –Matt Melis


34. Jamila Woods – “Sula (Hardcover)”

Sounds Like: Drinking a cup of soothing honey tea on a crisp, sunny fall morning

Key Lyric: “Lay on my pillow, you think I’m so weak (Weak)/ Soft as my skin is, my power’s discreet (Discreet)”

Why It Matters: A month after releasing her song “SULA (Paperback)”, inspired by the first Toni Morrison novel she ever read, Jamila Woods released a follow-up single and music video, “SULA (Hardcover)”. The “”Hard Cover” version, unlike its predecessor, repurposes the lyrics over an upbeat and vibrant production driven by the rhythmic humming of drums. In an open letter to fans, Jamila wrote, “The novel shows the evolution of a friendship between two Black women and how they choose to navigate society’s strict gender roles and rules of respectability.” The song was accompanied by a tasteful NSFW music video, where Woods tastefully undresses as her backyard transforms into a bedroom full of greenery, mirrors, and portraits. The video, like the song, showcases Jamila stripping down to her interior — the part that no one sees, rejecting the confining ideas of identity. “SULA” is about empowering sexuality, embracing the erotic, and creating a path outside what society deems okay. –Samantha Lopez


33. Lil Uzi Vert – “Baby Pluto”

Sounds Like: The last thing you hear before the tractor beam pulls you skywards

Key Lyric: “Yeah, we bought the four-door, had to get ready for war”

Why It Matters: This song is so good that it spawned an Uzi alter ego; so iconic a collaborative album with Future was partially named after it; and so powerful that hip-hop fans are ready to forget about any other rapper or dwarf planet that shares that name. Uzi’s mainstream breakout came on the melodic song “XO Tour Llif3”, but here he eschews the singing that made him a superstar. Against a banging cosmic beat, Lil Uzi Vert puts on a rap clinic, showing off half a dozen rhythmic ideas and keeping up a stream of punchlines hot enough to melt glass. Eternal Atake is almost a concept album, with recurring sketches that seem to imply an abduction and interstellar adventure. “Baby Pluto” isn’t just the first glimpse of the spaceship; it’s an epic journey all on its own. –Wren Graves


32. BTS – “Dis-ease”

Sounds Like: Funky beats, perfectly maintained skin and hair, and hope

Key Lyric: “Woo, there’s no eternal night/ I’m stronger/ A spark of fire/ I will never fade away”

Why It Matters: The cleverly styled “Dis-ease” blows just about everything else out of the water. It’s a retro jam. It’s a summer cookout. It has perhaps the best pop pre-chorus of the year, and the group’s hookiest melodies this side of “Boy with Luv”. It’s got J-Hope written all over it, straight from the boy who often feels like he tumbled out of the mid-’90s with his bright beats, flair for style, earworm phrasing, and unparalleled charisma as a dancer. Whenever BTS brings in a horn section, the sun simply shines a little brighter. There’s a breakdown in the bridge of “Dis-ease” that caused me to break down as well. “One for the laugh, two for the show,” they say — 400 for the number of times I’ll have listened to this track before the end of the year. Put this song in the credits of a coming-of-age film. Put this song as the pre-encore closer of the setlist when BTS is able to tour again. Put this song together with the choreography it deserves and fly the boys directly to the Grammy’s stage. It’s wonderful. –Mary Siroky


31. Frances Quinlan – “Rare Thing”

Sounds Like: The elation, however temporary, of absolutely knowing that there is goodness in this world

Key Lyric: “I know there is love that doesn’t have to do with taking something from somebody”

Why It Matters: Although Good should not be rare, lived experience has clearly dictated that it is. So, when we do see pure, unadulterated wholesomeness, it fills us with the swirling warmth that validates existence. That’s what Frances Quinlan experiences as she watches her young niece grow, a feeling she charmingly captures in “Rare Thing”. It may be a cliché to find the best of humanity in the unguarded earnestness of a child, but that doesn’t make it false. When you’re young, you naturally embrace moments like this. When we get older, we gratefully have music like Quinlan’s to remind us they exist. –Ben Kaye


30. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”

Sounds Like: A cross between a commercial jingle and a doo-wop group harmonizing around a barrel fire

Key Lyric: “But, baby girl, how do I look in my durag? Would you tell me the truth?”

Why It Matters: Bassist Stephen Lee Bruner (aka Thundercat) has spent the last 20 years doing everything from playing thrash metal in Suicidal Tendencies to being the secret weapon behind some of the most innovative achievements by artists like Flying Lotus, the late Mac Miller, and Kendrick Lamar. In that time, he’s also been at the forefront, along with artists like Kamasi Washington, of feeling out places for jazz influences in modern music. While he’s been able to win many of us over — and push us to hear sounds we wouldn’t normally associate with our favorite music — “Dragonball Durag” finds Bruner with a much greater challenge: winning over the ladies. In a comical look at what a man will do to impress a woman at all costs, including breaking out his, you guessed it, anime-inspired durag, Thundercat manages to both make us chuckle and consider the insecurities behind such gestures all while laying down some of the funkiest bass and smoothest harmonies of the year. It’s called swagger, damn it. –Matt Melis


29. Michael Stipe and Big Red Machine – “No Time for Love Like Now”

Sounds Like: The first R.E.M. song we’ve heard in nearly a decade

Key Lyric: “Whatever waiting means in this new place/ I am waiting for you”

Why It Matters: Depending on your fandom, a voice can be as strong as a friend. So it is with Michael Stipe, the longtime orator of R.E.M. and alternative music, whose vacancy throughout the 2010s was felt each and every year after 2011’s Collapse into Now. “No Time for Love Like Now” isn’t the first time we’ve heard the great bard, but it felt like the first time nonetheless. Blame it on Justin Vernon’s string-like guitars or the Dessners’ arrangements — actually, yes, you can credit all of that — but it also boils down to the sentiment. As so many are locked away, stewing in rage, Stipe’s call for love has never felt more timely. –Michael Roffman


28. Fiona Apple – “Shameika”

Sounds Like: What could easily be the plot of the next Academy Award-winning coming-of-age film

Key Lyric: “Back then I didn’t know what potential meant but/ Shameika wasn’t gentle and she wasn’t my friend/ But she got through to me and I’ll never see her again”

Why It Matters: It’s hard not to picture a young, middle school-aged Fiona Apple, big blue eyes and all, while listening to this jaunty track. As a fellow distracted student who felt a bit out of place in the world during those formative years, this song couldn’t be more relatable, both to me and I’m certain many, many others. As we’ve seen in countless coming-of-age films, sometimes all it takes is a wise word or two from a stranger to really hit you at your core. For Fiona, that stranger was Shameika, a girl at school, not a friend. Flash forward to 2020, and those words still ring in Fiona’s ears. Now that we know that Fiona and the real Shameika have reconnected, and not only that, collaborated, it makes the song that much more special. –Annie Black


27. BLACKPINK – “How You Like That”

Sounds Like: The song stuck in my head since late June

Key Lyric: “Now, look at you, now look at me/ Look at you, now look at me/ How you like that?”

Why It Matters: A week after BTS found their way onto both our mid-year albums and songs lists, BLACKPINK returned with “How You Like That”, the first single off their then-forthcoming studio debut, and it immediately became a contender for catchiest song of the year. Blending English and Korean, members Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa deliver a positive message of perseverance over a slamming, hip-hop-oriented track with plenty of explosive drops. “I’m going to grab the last bit of hope,” Jisoo promises in Korean, “even if I reach out with both my hands.” Combine that show of inner strength with a mantra-worthy chorus, an elaborate (and gorgeous) video, and a Tonight Show performance that broke the Internet, and it wasn’t long before even those late to the party knew the name BLACKPINK. –Matt Melis


26. Deftones – “The Spell of Mathematics”

Sounds Like: Snaps after the heaviest poetry reading ever

Key Lyric: “I drink the poison right from your hands”

Why It Matters: Fans who’ve been waiting for more Deftones tunes like “Elite” or “Rocket Skates” have reasons to rejoice: Ohms is the most mosh-friendly album the band’s written since the ’90s. But rather than return to the untamed aggression of Deftones’ youth, these songs are still tempered with the sophisticated sonic play that’s adorned their output since. Ohms is at its best when more experimental elements intrude on Carpenter’s riffs without subjugating them, such as the spacious finger-snap finale in “The Spell of Mathematics”. It’s the best song on the album — maybe their best track since Diamond Eyes. –Joseph Schafer


25. John Prine – “I Remember Everything”

Sounds Like: A wise grandfather figure sitting you down and telling you the secret to life

Key Lyric: “And I remember every night/ Your ocean eyes of blue/ How I miss you in the morning light/ Like roses miss the dew”

Why It Matters: We extol the virtues of music all the time as music writers, citing how it unifies people, consoles those in pain, and somehow understands us when the rest of the world doesn’t seem to. John Prine’s final song might do all three. Sung from the vantage point of a weary traveler looking back, Prine doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that there will be loss and mistakes and pain down the line. However, he also reminds us that there will be comfort, often in memories of things as simple as a shady tree or a warm smile, when looking back at the entire journey. It’s a wise message and a fitting final word on a remarkable life. –Matt Melis


24. Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am”

Sounds Like: Eilish nonchalantly flipping off trolls and media vultures while speeding off in a neon green sports car

Key Lyric: “Stop, what the hell are you talking about? Get my pretty name out of your mouth”

Why It Matters: Musically speaking, “Therefore I Am” could be a sequel to Eilish’s ominous 2019 smash hit “Bad Guy”. But it’s the subject matter here — or rather how cleverly and flippantly she handles it — that proves this is 2020 Billie at Her Best. Instead of angrily condemning the paparazzi and haters for constantly objectifying, criticizing, and shaming her and her body, our former Rookie of the Year takes a deep breath and then … shrugs and laughs right in their faces. It sucks to feel like you have to play the industry game, especially at such a young age, but Eilish is navigating it pretty well so far, all while keeping calm and collected. Hell, she’s even got the White House all riled up. –Lake Schatz


23. Future Islands – “For Sure”

Sounds Like: A skipping heartbeat

Key Lyric: “I will never keep you from an open door/ I know, you know/ That’s how much I feel in everything you are”

Why It Matters: Saying trust and love go hand in hand is cliché, but dammit if it isn’t the most beautiful thing when you truly feel it. No one is more suited to transmute that tender emotion into song than Future Islands. When that fist-flying chorus drops on “For Sure”, it’s as if Samuel T. Herring is singing from between the beats of someone’s skipping heart. It’s that moment you look up at someone you completely trust and warmth grips your whole being — and suddenly it all feels okay. — Ben Kaye


22. SZA – “Hit Different” feat. Ty Dolla $ign

Sounds Like: That feeling where you mean to say no but find yourself nodding yes

Key Lyric: “You a wild one, and I’m wading in you like it’s cool water”

Why It Matters: SZA is not only the type of artist who can drop a single and watch it go viral in a matter of hours, but one who can live up to that level of hype with a poise, polish, and perspective that tacitly promises that there’s plenty more to come. “Hit Different”, her surprise single featuring Ty Dolla $ign and production from The Neptunes, feels as natural and flawless as any of her finest collaborations, a testament to both her talent as a songwriter and her ability to temper her performance perfectly to the material at hand. “Can’t trust decision when you near me/ Get myself caught in your crossfire,” SZA admits in her second verse. “You a wild one, and I’m wading in you like it’s cool water.” Her voice absolutely simmers without ever feeling overwrought or performative. SZA is an absolute master at “playing it natural” and sincerely making us believe that she’s singing about that one person out there who makes her go both weak in the knees and against her better judgment. –Matt Melis


21. Christine and the Queens – “People, I’ve been sad”

Sounds Like: Slow-dancing in the era of self-isolation

Key Lyric: “Adolescence contrariée par un millier de remords/ Maintenant quand je ressens quelque chose, tout est bien plus fort.” (Roughly translated from French: “Vexed adolescence because of a thousand remorses/ Now when I feel something, everything is even more intense.”)

Why It Matters: Few in pop do vulnerability better than Héloïse “Chris” Letissier; never has the entire populace of the world felt as vulnerable as it does right now. So, for Christine and the Queens to deliver such a stirring ballad as “People, I’ve been sad” at this moment is a beautiful gift. Whether or not this song was intended as a soundtrack for our shared solitude is irrelevant. It has become a perfectly somber anthem for 2020, comforting in the acknowledgment that “If you fall apart, then I’m falling behind you.” You know the feeling. –Ben Kaye


20. Phoebe Bridgers – “Kyoto”

Sounds Like: The type of song to listen to on a long drive with the windows down

Key Lyric: “I wanted to see the world/ Then I flew over the ocean, and I changed my mind”

Why It Matters: “Kyoto” is a song that makes you feel just the way it sounds, breezy and nostalgic, despite being about some potentially heavy subjects, like reflecting on someone who maybe brought you trauma. Off of Phoebe Bridgers’ second album, Punisher, “Kyoto” is a driving track that starts with a trip to Japan with her band and ends with her back home in America, full of dramatic skies and simple, purposeful imagery. The best part about “Kyoto” might be the instrumental bridge connecting the two settings with a jaunty trumpet, a bright spot within a complicated song. –Annie Black


19. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – “Dreamsicle”

Sounds Like: A Southern rock riff on Marcel Proust

Key Lyric: “Poison oak to poison ivy/ Dirty jokes that blew right by me/ Mama curling up beside me/ Crying to herself.”

Why It Matters: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time famously begins with the taste of a madeleine cake causing childhood memories to come surging back. Here something similar happens with frozen sugar water, or as the narrator puts it, “A dreamsicle on a summer night/ In a folding lawn chair.” Over the last decade, Jason Isbell has established himself as one of the great lyricists of his generation, and “Dreamsicle” might be his masterpiece. The song is written from the perspective of a child who is only dimly aware of his parents’ marital problems. When he moves with his mother, the kid is more concerned about his friends forgetting him than he is about why Daddy can’t come home, and he tracks geography not by city or state, but by the transition from poison oak to poison ivy. Throughout, the adult music consumer understands more than the young narrator, and this tension creates layers of meaning that reward repeat listens. –Wren Graves


18. Tierra Whack – “Dora”

Sounds Like: The composer of The Rugrats‘ theme doing acid with Missy Elliot

Key Lyric: “Open the Dora/ Tell her that you ready to explore.”

Why It Matters: Tierra Whack is that rarest of creatures in hip-hop: an MC with an unprecedented taste in beats. It’s hard to picture anyone else rapping over those bright keyboards and sugary sweet ba-ba-ba-ba’s, and Whack uses this backdrop as a springboard for verses about adventure, materialism, and puns on children’s TV. Earlier this year, she stole the show with a guest verse on Lil Yachty’s “T.D.”, proving she could be dominate conventional rap tropes if she so chose. But when you hear the unconventional exuberance of “Dora”, you have to ask yourself, why would she want to? –Wren Graves


17. Miley Cyrus – “Midnight Sky”

Sounds Like: A Los Angeles dance floor from an alternate 2020 when we can actually go out dancing and not stay home watching people dance on YouTube from 2019.

Key Lyric: “Fire in my lungs, can’t bite the devil on my tongue, oh no/ I don’t need to be loved by you”

Why It Matters: Gotta say, Miley Cyrus must really love Halloween. The way she flips genres on the dime leaves this writer to believe she finds solace in being able to shake things up, try things out, and move on to the next thing. You know, the whole can’t stop, won’t stop swagger she turned into a motive for millennials way, way back in 2013. With “Midnight Sky” — and really, all of Plastic Hearts — Cyrus dons a number of costumes. She’s Stevie Nicks, she’s Blondie, and, if you follow along lyrically, you might hear echoes of The Boss. It’s like she cracked open an old jukebox for inspiration, picked out her favorite 45s, and melted it all into a sugary pop confection — one that recalls our favorite FM anthems of yesteryear. Behind the masks, the makeup, and the influences, though, it’s Miley, and her pop fantasy was the nightlife we yearned for in 2020.  –-Michael Roffman


16. Touché Amoré – “Reminders”

Sounds Like: Growth in accepting that we can’t go through life alone

Key Lyrics: Is there a way to feel free/ Without being someone else?

Why It Matters: Without sounding too on the nose, “Reminders” is a literal reminder to the listener that each of us has love in our lives, and sometimes we’re too much in our head to see it. With all of the isolation many of us have gone through this year, our regular lives ripped away for a seemingly endless timeframe, being stuck in our heads is standard procedure. This song is about overcoming that, taking a deep breath and looking around with fresh eyes, seeing that there is ample love and support around us, whether in the form of a partner, a friend, a child, or a pet. This is played out perfectly in the track’s music video, where Touché Amoré invited friends and fellow musicians to film themselves with their loved ones, and it’s hard not to tear up while watching. –Annie Black


15. beabadoobee – “Care”

Sounds Like: A field full of flowers bursting from the ground one by one after a long winter’s rest

Key Lyric: “I don’t want your sympathy/ Stop saying you give a shit”

Why It Matters: “Care”, the lead single off Bea Kristi’s (aka beabadoobee) full-length debut, Fake It Flowers, dropped in mid-July and did its very best to stir a quarantined nation that had been cooped up so long they probably didn’t even realize it was summertime outside. The single glows and begs for re-listens, as addictive an indie rock track as we heard in 2020, with hooks for days and an irresistible mix of sweetness and dismissal imbued in lines like “I don’t want your sympathy/ Stop saying you give a shit.” After a year as tumultuous as 2020 has been, there’s something appealing about a throwback rock song about being misunderstood and treated like an afterthought. –Matt Melis


14. IDLES – “War”

Sounds Like: A rallying call for the troops to fight against all that is wrong in the world

Key Lyrics: “This means war/ Anti-war”

Why It Matters: “War”, the opening track on IDLES’ excellent album Ultra Mono, is a great display of the power that the Bristol band are known for and capable of. I’ll never forget when I learned about IDLES, a friend said, “They’ll make you feel like you want to simultaneously punch someone in the face while giving them a hug,” and this song couldn’t be a better example of that. The anger in Joe Talbot’s lyrics is palpable, but he’s pissed off for peace. It’s a rallying war song in the spirit of anti-war, with possibly the sickest drum fill of the year. –Annie Black


13. Beyoncé – “Black Parade”

Sounds Like: A historical journey across generations that leads to many places including Kamala Harris in the West Wing

Key Lyric: “Put your fist up in the air/ Show Black love (Show Black love)/ Motherland drip on me/ Motherland, Motherland drip on me”

Why It Matters: Not often viewed as an overtly political artist, “Black Parade” finds Beyoncé getting out and doing her part to inspire change. The song focuses less on politics (though she cites police brutality and other issues) and more on celebrating what it means to be Black and all the pride that comes with that history (or her-story) and its various traditions. “Here I come on my throne, sittin’ high/ Follow my parade, oh, my parade,” Beyoncé attributes to a Black mother. As the world continues to grow more intimidating and frightening, Beyoncé draws strength from history and urges others to find their own way to follow in a long line of proud Black heritage. –Matt Melis


12. Hayley Williams – “Simmer”

Sounds Like: Choking down the glowing embers of your own rage

Key Lyric: “There’s so many ways to give in/ Eyes closed/ Another way to make it to ten/ Oh, how to draw the line between wrath and mercy?”

Why It Matters: Hayley Williams made sure to deliver a statement with “Simmer”, her debut solo single. Though themes of anxiety and anger have been well-covered in Paramore’s oeuvre, the track’s smoldering groove is far removed from the tropical new wave of After Laughter. That gives it a different level of exposure for Williams, whose struggles are no longer couched in fun pop rock. It’s like we’re witnessing her emotional battles in closer quarters than ever before, marked by the guttural gasps layered throughout. It doesn’t hurt that “Simmer” is entrancingly composed, desperation crawling through every percussive pop, glottal stop, and atmospheric guitar note. You can hear the risk Williams put into “Simmer”, and the power she found there only becomes more evident with each listen. –Ben Kaye


11. Freddy Gibbs and The Alchemist – “Scottie Beam” (feat. Rick Ross)

Sounds Like: A dream sequence in a gangster rap opera

Key Lyric: “Yeah, the revolution is the genocide/ Look, your execution will be televised”

Why It Rules: The Alchemist has sketched out one of his moodiest, most atmospheric soundscapes yet, with shimmering pianos that glisten like diamonds on the track. Freddie Gibbs sets himself against this softness, with philosophical and violent lyrics whose sharpness cuts through the dreamy haze. In what has been an (unexpectedly?) good year for Rick Ross guest verses, Rozay shows off some of the sharpest, funniest writing of his career. Until this year, you might have thought The Alchemist, Freddie Gibbs, and Rick Ross lived on different planets, but “Scottie Beam” doesn’t just tie them together; it brings out the best in each of them. –Wren Graves


10. Pearl Jam – “Superblood Wolfmoon”

Sounds Like: Pearl Jam found their mojo again

Key Lyric: “I don’t know anything/ I question everything/ This life I love is goin’ way too fast”

Why It Matters: Pearl Jam are makers of moments. They do it every night on stage. It’s part of their calling. Yet, that energy isn’t always easy to capture in the studio, and all too often, their songs on record pale in comparison to how they explode on stage. There are immediate exceptions, though, and “Superblood Wolfmoon” is one of them. Not since “The Fixer” in 2009 have the Seattle rockers delivered a single with such immediacy and youthful cadence. Eddie Vedder is in top form at the mic, surfing over a bed of crunchy power pop that would make Robin Zander blush. “She was a stunner and I am stunned,” he screams, and, well, the feeling’s mutual pal. –Michael Roffman


09. Dua Lipa – “Don’t Start Now”

Sounds Like: A rebirth while wearing bell-bottoms

Key Lyric: “So moved on, it’s scary/ I’m not where you left me at all”

Why It Matters: As the lead single for Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia album, it quickly sets the stage for what’s to come — and that’s a whole lot of sexy, unabashedly confident pop that honors the dance music of the past (house, disco) while also sounding decidedly 2020. Besides, who could resist such an empowering shrug-off of an ex and those chunky, Daft Punk-esque baselines? –Lake Schatz


08. Megan Thee Stallion – “Savage Remix” (feat. Beyoncé)

Sounds Like: Strutting in your best outfit, owning the patriarchy

Key Lyric: “I’m a boss, I’m a leader/ I pull up in my two-seater/ And my mama was a savage, ni**a, got this shit from Tina [Knowles]”

Why It Matters: When Megan Thee Stallion released the original “Savage” on her Suga EP earlier this year, it instantly became a TikTok hit. It had all the makings of an IRL global anthem rallying for female empowerment and self-love, but its full potential wasn’t truly unlocked until Beyoncé, the Queen, dropped in with two additional verses and background vocals. Better yet, all proceeds from the remix benefited COVID-19 relief efforts in the two artists’ hometown of Houston. –Lake Schatz


07. Fiona Apple – “Under the Table”

Sounds Like: What it feels like to be a woman on a daily basis in a still male-dominated world

Key Lyric: “I would beg to disagree/ But begging disagrees with me”

Why It Matters: “Under the Table” is, sure, at face value, about going to a dinner party that you don’t want to go to and having to be polite and quiet throughout, but as a woman, it’s so much more. In society, we’re taught to let things happen no matter what we want or feel, and thankfully, to quote the movement spurred at the 2018 Academy Awards, time’s up on that. We don’t have to sit there and smile when we’re uncomfortable or uneasy, and we’re not going to. Fiona Apple truly understands and speaks for women everywhere throughout “Under the Table”. –Annie Black 


06. Lady Gaga – “Stupid Love”

Sounds Like: Exactly what we’ve wanted from Lady Gaga for a long, long time

Key Lyric: “I don’t need a reason, oh/ Not sorry, I want your stupid love”

Why It Matters: “Stupid Love” is the song you want to hear on the dance floor at your friend’s wedding, the song you blast with the windows down on the drive home from work, the song that you listen to at the gym while powering through whatever horrible exercise you’re doing. It’s a perfect pop song that, in a normal world, we might be sick of hearing by now from radio overplay, but in quarantine, it’s just a figment of something we’re all hoping for: dancing together with friends. –Annie Black


05. Waxahatchee – “Fire”

 

Sounds Like: Dappled sunlight filtering through green leaves

Key Lyric: “I’m a bird in the trees/ I can learn to see with a partial view.”

Why It Matters: As the legend goes, Katie Crutchfield was driving on a cross-country road trip with boyfriend Kevin Morby when they passed Memphis, TN. The setting sun caused the city to glow as if on fire, and in that instant, Crutchfield’s ears filled with a new and flawless melody. Unable to take her hands from the wheel and unwilling to bother her partner, she kept those soaring notes locked tightly in her head, running through them over and over again until gas tank or bladder gave way. The result is an effervescent ode to self-knowledge and the hope that such a thing might eventually lead to self-love. Crutchfield doesn’t quite get there by the end of “Fire”, but she’s closer, and that’s all any of us can ask for. Humans are flawed, but through melodies like this one, we can tip-toe closer to perfection. –Wren Graves


04. Run the Jewels – “ooh la la” (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)

 

Sounds Like: A poppin’ Brooklyn block party pre-Corona

Key Lyric: “Fuck a king or queen and all of they loyal subjects/ I pull my penis out and I piss on they shoes in public/ People, we the pirates, the pride of this great republic”

Why It Matters: Although the stellar RTJ4 was written before the pandemic (and Trump’s fatal mishandling of it), plenty of songs such as this one grandiosely flip off and stand up to incompetent, oppressive authority figures. And here Run the Jewels do so all while cooly laughing and reveling in boom-bap fun, accompanied by Greg Nice from Nice & Smooth, veteran producer DJ Premier, and a well-timed sample of Gang Starr’s “DWYCK”. –Lake Schatz


03. BTS – “Dynamite”

Sounds Like: The party 2020 never got to have.

Key Lyric: “King Kong, kick the drum, rolling on like a Rolling Stone/ Sing song when I’m walking home/ Jump up to the top, LeBron.”

Why It Matters: Not that BTS could ever do wrong in the eyes of the Army, but releasing a party anthem in the summer of 2020 was kind of a ballsy move. “Dynamite” ended up being massive, of course, but just imagine where it could have gone if clubs were open. As it stands, it served as joyful escape in a year in desperate need of such ear worms. It’s full of nonsense couplets (“Ding dong, call me on my phone/ Ice tea and a game of ping pong”) over an inescapable beat, a carefree combo that gleefully rips any negative feelings from your grip. Just let go and groove. —Ben Kaye


02. Phoebe Bridgers – “I Know the End”

Sounds Like: Returning to your hometown after being away a while and reflecting on your mortality

Key Lyric: “The billboard said, ‘The End Is Near’/ I turned around, there was nothing there/ Yeah, I guess the end is here”

Why It Matters: “I Know the End” is the anthemic closing track of Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore album, Punisher. The closer starts out subdued and tuned down before bursting into an explosive ballad. Bridgers saves the album’s spectacular shining moment for a song that looks out into the end of the world unfazed. The ominous ballad returns to the singer-songwriter’s narrative abilities and chronicles a bleak look at the world in step with references to American culture and recent happenings through orchestrated folk hymns and electric guitar. All of us were homesick for simpler times this year, but like the track suggests, you can’t ever really go “home,” and you really don’t want to. It was just as bad back then. –Samantha Lopez


01. The Weeknd – “Blinding Lights”

Sounds Like: A montage scene in Stranger Things 4

Key Lyric: “I’m blinded by the lights/ No, I can’t sleep until I feel your touch”

Why It Matters:  A great hook is one you know you’ll remember forever and one you hate to see end. Think back to the moment you stumbled upon MGMT’s “Kids”, M83’s “Midnight City”, or, hell, the opening bars of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”. When the hook works, it takes hold of you, it embalms you, and connects with you on a level that’s basically sexual. “Blinding Lights” does that. No stranger to a melody, The Weeknd waxes romantic over a blockbuster riff that probably belonged to Harold Faltermeyer in another life. This is gooey modern pop in the stickiest sense, loaded with sugar and glazed in whatever DayGlo food coloring gets our pheromones cooking when it’s half past midnight. It’s instantaneous, too, demanding to be replayed, which is probably why it’s already about to eclipse his 2016 single “Starboy” in Spotify streams … in a matter of months. –Michael Roffman

Click ahead for an exclusive Spotify playlist of our Top 50 Songs of 2020…



Top 50 Songs of 2020 Playlist

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