10. Waxahatchee, “Fire”
Katie Crutchfield achieves Peak Road Anthem with this windows-down tribute to the power of self-love — the warmest and wisest moment on Saint Cloud, her warmest and wisest Waxahatchee LP. Over unobtrusive electric piano, fidgety, palm-muted guitar, and eventually, a loping drum beat, Crutchfield spills out her guts to the most important partner of all: herself. “If I could love you unconditionally,” she sings with a hint of twang, “I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky.” — R.R.
9. Rosalía, “Juro Que”
No need to mince words; Rosalía is the most arresting singer on the planet. Her gymnastic vibrato conveys every pixel of emotion on her 2018 breakthrough El Mal Querer but she has plenty of fun just flexing it as a muscle, whether it’s deployed on a miniature opera or a fully quantized urbano song. That balance between her academic virtuosity and her bleeding-edge pop transmissions — and that voice — is why she’s as poised as anyone to become the Beyoncé of the 2020s. Her video for “Juro Que” is typically cinematic, befitting a political song about a prison wall dividing lovers. Just wait until she starts chanting the title, “juro que, juro que, juro que” (“I swear that, I swear that, I swear that”) until it glitches out in a psychedelic Auto-Tune orgy. Anyway, walls are for shitbags. — D.W.
8. HAIM, “The Steps”
Like the ditched boyfriends in the video for “The Wire,” we don’t deserve HAIM. The only thing sisters Este, Alana, and Danielle can’t do is wrong, which is probably why their third LP, Women in Music Pt. III, has taken so long to cook. Perfectionism makes, well, perfect: “The Steps” brings contemporary pop back to Buckingham-Nicks and the Laurel Canyon scene, with its ache-driven, country-tinged harmonies, warm bass, and crying guitar solo. Documenting a pretty doomed relationship (“Every time I think that I’ve been taking the steps / You end up mad at me for making a mess”) – those pre-breakup frustrations have never sounded so blissful. — J.L.
7. Maddie & Tae, “Write a Book”
Madison Font and Tae Kerr were just teenagers when their debut single “Girl in a Country Song” cleverly stirred up debates about Bro-Country sexism in 2014. Half a decade later, they’ve finally returned with a sophomore album that fulfills the duo’s early songwriting potential with a song cycle about love and heartbreak that’s rife with observational detail. Most of the highlights on The Way It Feels focus on the pain of a breakup, but the bubbly “Write a Book” is an addictive ode to a guy who’s qualified to write a bestseller about how to be a dreamy boyfriend. — A.S.
6. Christine and the Queens, “People, I’ve been sad”
In 2008, Brandon Flowers posed the question, “Are we human, or are we dancer?” It only took 12 years for Héloïse Letissier to definitively answer “both.” One needn’t watch the video for “People, I’ve been sad” to know that the physicality of Letissier’s performance is intertwined with the elegiac beauty of her impassioned vocal. Heart-wrenching and delicate, the long-running contender’s new signature tune braids moody ’80s synths and a thicket of call-response vocals that weigh the cost of stepping back from the fullness of life. This one gets our vote for the pandemic’s unofficial theme song — and most inspired modern dance? — J.L.
5. Poppy, “Concrete”
Poppy thrives on disorientation, cramming her spastic “post-genre” hybrids with emotional and sonic contrasts: the menacing distortion of metal, the sugary intensity of J-pop, the mechanical chill of industrial. But “Concrete,” the opener and centerpiece of her third LP, is discombobulating in a way that can only be described, in totality, as “prog”: Electronic drones bleed into metallic guitar fireworks, and djent-y riffs careen into landscapes of billowing Pet Sounds vocal harmonies. Sure, she’s showing off — and it’s working. Poppy is one of the few artists alive who can elicit a genuine WTF — and how many of those can make “Bohemian Rhapsody” cross your mind? — R.R.
4. Hayley Williams, “Sugar on the Rim”
One of the things Hayley Williams has always known is that you have to take the bad with the good, but knowing is one thing and being at ease is another. So the woman who at 19 could write a song so enthusiastically candid about her own capacity for selfish vindictiveness that having grown up she no longer feels comfortable singing it, and at 21, could sum up the behind-the-music nightmare chronicled on Brand New Eyes by swearing she’d “never trade it in”, is only now able to write and casually deliver this slithering tropical bop about silver linings in bad love — and if it isn’t love after all, “Maybe we just had to feel it / So we know the difference.” — T.W.
3. Megan Thee Stallion, “Captain Hook”
The phrase “Captain Hook” isn’t, strictly speaking, the hook of “Captain Hook”— that duty’s pulled by the sound of a sword being sharpened, with an assist from the long vowels Megan habitually splays out like dissected frogs — and it isn’t the climax either, and it isn’t spoken more than once. But like you she knows a hook when she hears one: It’s the right title, because the image it completes sticks so neatly in the mind, it’s barbed. Two minutes later, when the song’s over, it’ll be the joke you hit repeat to hear again. — T.W.
2. Fiona Apple, “Heavy Balloon”
Bookended by electric clanging, Fiona Apple’s “Heavy Balloon” grapples with the crippling weight of the singer’s lifelong depression. With Apple’s smoky contralto hanging over the skeletal track, she confronts her internal strife, but doesn’t sink into it. After trekking through mud, the culmination of her own growth is the hilarious gutsiness of the toughest-sounding chorus on her amazing record using gardening similes: “I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans / I’ve been sucking it in so long / That I’m bursting at the seams.” — I.K.
1. Dua Lipa, “Don’t Start Now”
Exes — both toxic and not — attempting to reconnect during the global coronavirus pandemic has unfortunately been an actual thing. Luckily, we’ve had Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” as a swift, anthemic antidote – all about moving on while not actually forgetting. The first single off the left-field Grammy winner’s floor-ready Future Nostalgia is a modern disco classic, with house piano stabs and pocket-orchestra flourishes underscoring a vocal turn both sultry and unforgiving. But if anything will get us through that breakup — or this Black Mirror of a year — it’s that walking, talking, pirouetting bass line, pop’s best in recent memory. An “I Will Survive” for an era when we really need the reassurance. — J.L.
Listen to the entire list of songs below.