For a year that made no sense, it’s only fitting that 2020’s best songs make strange neighbors on a mixtape.
You can’t recap 2020 without mentioning Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” a sex song so dirty that even the edited version leans toward an R rating (“wet and gushy,” anyone?). But on this roundup, there’s essentially an artist for every vibe or occasion: social uprising (Run the Jewels), apocalyptic brooding (Phoebe Bridgers), even just blissful headphone escapism (Tame Impala).
As this depressing year comes to a close, let’s toast to the songs that kept us in the game.
(Disclaimer: All qualifying songs were on albums released in 2020.)
In 1969, folk trio Crosby, Stills & Nash recorded and released a cryptic chestnut entitled “Guinnevere.” The next year, two jazz masters tried their hands at the tune: flautist Herbie Mann emerging with a faithful instrumental cover, and trumpeter Miles Davis reinterpreting it as an intergalactic, unrecognizable epic that neared the 20-minute mark. For the live version appearing on Axiom, New Orleans bandleader Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is most interested in Davis’ vision of the song. Electric piano, sitar and a hepcat languor are out in favor of djembe, congas and a hothouse zest. Here, Adjuah — who plays trumpet and reverse flugelhorn, among other instruments — and his band condense “Guinnevere,” investing it with a pointed verve. The horns veer from woozy to celestial to frenetic, with Corey Fonville’s drums, in particular, elevating this music to new, daring heights. – Raymond Cummings
The breakout track from Tom Fec’s new album, Hot Wet & Sassy, starts with a giant, greasy synth-bass squirming over clipped hi-hats and distorted vocoder that insists, “I’m the new babysitter, and I can make time slow down.” Then it somehow gets progressively weirder, with off-kilter structural stagger steps and searing, abrasive harmonies. The relatively soothing cameo from Nine Inch Nails frontman, longtime TOBACCO fan and fellow western Pennsylvania native Trent Reznor adds a smart sonic counterpoint before the song revs back up again. The hilariously disturbing video featuring a voyeuristic Falkor (from The Never-Ending Story) lurking outside a suburban home is the icing on this creepy cake. – John Paul Bullock
Sophie Allison’s investigation of isolation and depression was the perfect summation of the 2020 dumpster fire. Her struggle “to seem strong for my love, for my family and friends” resonated as everyone tried to power through the year. Delivering that message through crisp production, sonically cheerful vocals and big, late ’90s FM radio guitars perfectly underscores the constant pull towards darkness we all continue to experience. It’s a brave, brutally honest song about mental health that came at a time when we really needed it. – J.P.B.
There’s a rare moment every few years when alternative, pop and rhythmic radio formats can agree on a song, like OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” or Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” And in 2020, the stars aligned for 24kGoldn and Iann Dior, two young L.A. rappers who were playing Call of Duty one day and caught a vibe when producer Omer Fedi started playing a chiming guitar riff. Dior’s sneering pre-chorus leads perfectly into Goldn’s anthemic hook, their nasally pop-punk voices putting a bubblegum spin on the kind of emo-rap that’s thrived on SoundCloud for years. – Al Shipley
The year’s best break-up banger, “You Should Be Sad” is both fun and ferocious. Kudos to Halsey and super-songwriter Greg Kurstin (Adele, Pink, Kelly Clarkson) for churning out a taut country-pop single that absolutely eviscerates all exes in its path. “I’m so glad I never ever had a baby with you,” the pop star sneers over a fingerpicked acoustic guitar sample — think Carrie Underwood with extra Jersey girl fury. Manic is easily Halsey’s most wide-ranging album, both lyrically and thematically — and even though it didn’t make the same splash as her chart-topper “Without Me,” “You Should Be Sad” is likely the LP’s centerpiece. – Bobby Olivier
With her luxurious Harvest Time EP, Brazilian-Norwegian songwriter Charlotte Dos Santos pivoted from the beat/sample-driven style of 2017’s Cleo into a more organic space. The wild “Helio” lands somewhere between the synthetic and human, blending dewy jazz piano and rumbling double-bass with quietly buzzing electronics and stacked, chanted vocals that could only be achieved through intense overdubbing. “I’m my Neptune,” she sings. “I’m my ruler.” She sounds fully in control of this malleable sound. – Ryan Reed
“Wasted” is the psych-rock centerpiece of The Waterfall II, the long-awaited sequel to My Morning Jacket’s 2015 LP. And it feels like a therapy session: Frontman Jim James glances over his shoulder at personified guilt — a choral cascade of voices who plead with him to “face it,” whatever “it” might mean. “Too afraid to live,” James sings. “You done something wrong.” The band matches that heaviness with a serpentine, symphonic-level arrangement: bong-hit riffs, brass blasts, a bluesy electric piano solo. The darkness, as always, suits them. – R.R.
With her first Spanish-language album, Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios), alt-soul singer Kali Uchis leans fully into her Latina side. The Colombian-American artist shines on “La Luz (Fín)” (or “The Light (End)”) with Jhay Cortez, the Puerto Rican visionary helping take reggaetón into the future. Boricua producer Marco “Tainy” Masís is at the helm, seamlessly blending Uchis’ R&B vibe with Cortez’s reggaetón world. The two singers form a dream team on the alluring single, with Cortez’s flirty flow complementing Uchis’ captivating come-ons. – Lucas Villa
It’s hard to argue that anyone had a bigger year than Megan Thee Stallion. Before releasing her debut LP, Good News, and teaming with Cardi B for the pop culture triumph “WAP,” she tucked one of the year’s catchiest, most clever songs on her Suga EP. “Captain Hook” is a straightforward, immediately recognizable anthem with smooth sex bars that most rappers can only wish they’d crafted. With lines like “I got a man; I got a bitch / I’m a banana; they gotta split,” it may be the best song ever written about a curved dick. – Josh Chesler
Phoebe Bridgers’ second solo album, Punisher, inadvertently soundtracked the pandemic. Written long before it felt like the world was collapsing, Bridgers coincidentally captured the emotions of panic, pain and desolation felt throughout 2020 while writing her Grammy-nominated record. But the closing track, “I Know The End,” is a particularly poignant gut-punch. The song’s about a metaphorical apocalypse, with Bridgers coming to terms with her world ending, but determined to make the best of it. The intense, tumultuous crescendo sticks with you long after it ends. – Tatiana Tenreyro
Back in 2017, Dua Lipa laid down instructions to rise above an ex-flame with “New Rules.” Well, it seems like that lover just won’t quit — the pop star recorded another anthem to get him off her back. “Don’t Start Now,” the lead single from Future Nostalgia, firmly cements boundaries (“Don’t show up, don’t come out”), backed by a glittery melody fit for a Studio 54 revival. It’s become Lipa’s biggest single: peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 (her highest chart placement to date) and securing three Grammy nominations. Once it’s safe to dance in public again, DJs better be ready to crank this one. – Bianca Gracie
“America” is an act of sorrowful rebellion, methodically beating against a country, society and foolish hope for better days ahead. Too heavy? Too bad. Such is the sprawling lead single from Stevens’ mournful electro-pop LP The Ascension — a 12-minute odyssey hinging on the singer pleading to God, “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” The album’s final track forgoes stars and stripes for a long-winded but mercilessly effective exploration of disillusionment. “I have traded my life for a picture of the scenery,” Stevens sings. Elsewhere, biblical imagery is woven throughout the piece — floods, Judas, the sign of the cross — and laid over vast expanses of hypnotic synth. Fittingly, there is no obvious payoff for those who endure to the song’s final moments. It just ends. – B.O.
Raise your hand if you saw Miley Cyrus’ rock revival coming. Though she’d previously dabbled in psychedelia with her Flaming Lips collaborations, the singer made a full rock transformation with her seventh LP, Plastic Hearts, embracing her ’80s-era arena ambitions. With its bubbling synths, glossy production and gritty vocals, “Midnight Sky” sounds like a distant cousin of Stevie Nicks’ 1982 hit “Edge of Seventeen” — a fitting fact, considering they later mashed up the two songs as a remix. “Midnight Sky” is just retro enough to be current in 2020. – R.R. and D.K.
Bad Bunny represents the future of reggaetón, but with “Safaera” he paid homage to the genre’s 2000s golden age. The song instantly takes you back to the “pari de marquesina” days, spent at friends’ backyard parties perreando to a megamix of the latest reggaetón hits. “Safaera” includes multiple songs in one, featuring some of the genre’s biggest names: Jowell y Randy and Ñengo Flow. But Bad Bunny gives this throwback his own twist, with lyrics about wanting to pleasure the woman in question and championing mamar culo, making it just as dirty as the songs from that era but with a more progressive take. – T.T.
“Shaking out the numb,” Amelia Meath coos over Nick Sanborn’s muted guitar loops and frizzy synth-bass. Haven’t we all felt that way at some point this year? This slow-building electro-pop cut might be 2020’s most overlooked quarantine anthem, tapping into our emotional paralysis while also previewing the rave-y, communal concert elation we all hope to enjoy in a post-vaccine world. “Let me feel something,” Meath pleads. Maybe, just maybe, we’re almost there. – R.R.
Like the song says, a “violent current of energy” permeates “On The Floor,” creating a sense of yearning so thick it may be severed only by chainsaw. A visceral sexual tension underscores the most replayable single from Set My Heart on Fire Immediately — yet another uniformly strong project from art-pop songwriter Mike Hadreas. Throughout the song, its narrator attempts to break free of another man’s spell: “How long ’til this washes away? / How long ’til my body is safe?” he wonders over a wobbling, funkified bass line plucked from Stevie Wonder’s playbook. Hadreas has a knack for crystallizing humanity as a magnetic sensation between bodies. – B.O.
Nearly four minutes into the hypnotic groove of “Time (You and I),” the year’s best disco-revivalist jam never to make the nightclub, Khruangbin coyly questions: “Are you still listening?” They don’t literally ask, but only keen ears will realize that bassist Laura Lee begins to sing in other languages (like Turkish, Portuguese, Serbian, Hebrew and Mandarin) — translating the universal quip “that’s life.” The song’s theme feels global too: the familiar regret that a relationship might’ve worked if there was simply more time. The Houston psych-funk trio, who became cultishly popular after 2018’s Con Todo El Mundo, delivered again with the Mordechai LP. “Time (You and I)” was a clear fan favorite, destined for thousands of socially distant pool parties. – B.O.
Even amid infinite darkness, Stephen Bruner still manages to entertain. On “Dragonball Durag,” Thundercat is on a quest to woo a love interest, with the durag here acting as Thundercat’s superhero cape. In the video, he finds the titular item in the trash and transforms into a smooth operator (but only in his mind). Even harnessing the durag’s power, he fails to impress Kali Uchis, comedian Quinta Brunson and, finally, Haim. The visual reflects the song’s smooth groove, melding his soulful R&B and beloved yacht-rock. – D.K.
Teaming with Bon Iver, Taylor Swift wound up with the string-backed, gospel-adjacent “Exile,” her most innovative tune in recent memory. Maybe it just signals Swift entering into her the next phase, but “Exile” is a sharper, more mature track than what some might have expected from the superstar. Much like Beyoncé’s “Formation,” “Exile” seems to mark a pivotal moment in Swift’s career — a willingness to keep experimenting, even as her profile keeps growing. – J.C.
Radio pop takes a backseat to country rock on the fourth single from Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III. Guitars squeal and twang; the pace is a thick chug commingled with a cocksure strut. (And why shouldn’t the ‘80s Juicy Fruit TV jingle and the platonic ideal of a mid-career Sheryl Crow hit reproduce?) But if the tactile “The Steps” eats like a musical meal, lyrically it considers a more existential theme: the sheer unlikeliness of ever really, truly knowing another person. Wringing true emotion from every note, the Haim sisters — Este, Danielle, and Alana — frame this in personal and relatable terms: We’re all trying to overcome something; most of us have had a partner who didn’t seem supportive enough; honeymoons end eventually; a sense of independence is paramount. Haim hold out hope, of course: “If I go right, and you go left / Hey, I know we’ll meet up again.” Yet doubt is never far away, and working hard to vanquish it every day may be half the relationship battle. – R.C.
Nine albums deep, Deftones continue to refine their signature art-metal — Ohms is the band’s most nuanced blend of light and shadow in years. But as they prove on the title-track, they’re also willing to go full-throttle when the mood strikes. The song is packed with Stephen Carpenter’s heavy, grimy riffs and Chino Moreno’s ominous, obscure lyrics. That intensity feels more appropriate than ever, given the near-apocalypse we seem to be living through these days. They might not be directly calling 2020 a “haunted maze,” but it sure would be an apt description. – J.C. & R.R.
Nothing divides fans like dueling studio versions of the same goddamn song. The tale of “Borderline,” the lead single off Tame Impala’s euphoric fourth LP, Slow Rush, is this: Kevin Parker released the song in April 2019, realized he wasn’t satisfied with the mix and tinkered with it — pumping up the synth-bass line, swapping a few lyrics and eliminating the fan-beloved “ahhh” in the track’s first few seconds. The newly tweaked cut appeared on the album in February; the original was removed from streaming, though it still lives on YouTube. Whichever version you prefer, it’s still a psych-pop knockout — one of Parker’s finest earworms. What fan could deny the exhilarating flute sample, driving hip-hop beat and general dreaminess of the production? Still, there will be diehards standing cross-armed at Tame’s next tour, whining to their friends, “I wish he’d play the real song.” – B.O.
“Dolla dealin’ passer?” “Dolphin dealer passive?” The sampled vocal loop that opens “New Jade” is essentially gibberish — Dan Snaith has squished the sound into a strange new shape, fashioning yet another hypnotic, electronic hook from a second-long snippet of melody. After a couple repetitions of the line, the tongue-speaking sounds like a familiar language. New questions arise: Is that a synth or a pitch-shifted guitar? Hold up, a hammered dulcimer? – R.R.
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.
When the Weeknd released the first two After Hours singles in the same week, the chart race between the tracks played out like the story of the tortoise and the hare. The clubby, Metro Boomin-produced “Heartless” got to No. 1 first but quickly dropped off, and over the next few months the world came around to the superior charms of the ‘80s synth-pop homage “Blinding Lights.” Michael Sembello famously wrote “Maniac” for a slasher flick before it was repurposed for Flashdance, and the gleaming, slightly ominous “Blinding Lights” sounds a little like Abel Tesfaye and Max Martin turned “Maniac” back into a song for a horror movie. – A.S.
Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are unstoppable on their own, with a long line of chart-topping hits that instantly became classics. It was only natural that, by joining forces, they’d end up making one of the year’s biggest songs. The duo saved this bleakest of summers with a very quotable, raunchy hit about female sexual pleasure, inspiring a TikTok dance craze and memes galore. It teeters the line between sensual and campy — nobody will ever look at macaroni in a pot the same way again. – T.T.
Matt Healy personifies the restless millennial id, so who better than the 1975 frontman to document the sadness, hilarity, awkwardness and — just maybe — euphoria of the erotic Zoom call? After a swirl of ghostly ambience, with FKA twigs’ choral voice amongst the reverb, the band slips into the kind of revisionist ’80s posh sheen that few others can convincingly pull off. There’s a gleaming, high-octave guitar lick. There’s a sax solo that bridges Spandau Ballet’s “True” and M83’s “Midnight City.” Then there’s Healy, recounting his FaceTime hook-up with journaled detail. “I just wanted a happy ending,” he sings. Now we all need a towel. – R.R.
Every Fiona Apple anthem is well-earned. The singer-songwriter has an abundance of songs about struggling — with herself, with men, with the industry, with the world. “Heavy Balloon” watches Apple triumphantly overcome the bullshit and find victory and confidence within herself. “I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans” is a mantra that will likely be tattooed on people’s arms and stomachs in the coming years. It’s a reminder that we have control over ourselves, over our perceptions of ourselves and over our abilities. – Danielle Chelosky
“We don’t mean no harm / But we truly mean all the disrespect,” El-P and Killer Mike declare on “Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4).” It’s a suitable thesis for this blood-bonded duo’s ruthless, middle-finger-waving fourth album. In lieu of a subtle intro or slow-burning overture, RTJ4 barrels out of the gate with fury and purpose as these rap veterans rhyme tongue-twisters around each other, bring their wrath upon racist cops and billionaire charlatans, and imagine themselves as a fictitious ’70s television duo called Yankee and the Brave. Like much of RTJ4, it’s an old-school homage, a throwback to the days when rap duos fed off each other’s energy and rhymed over Cold Grits drum samples. Future historians will note that RTJ4 was recorded before yet released almost immediately after the police killing of George Floyd, tapping into a national mood of righteous anger, grief and mass uprising. – Zach Schonfeld
This dizzying Live Forever single was another billboard that read: If you’re not listening to Bartees Strange, you’re doing something wrong. Opening with an infectious rap and veering into emo and country-rock, the song explores Bartees’ ambition — as an artist and in life in general. “And right when I get all of my hopes up, something explodes / Lord, I never win,” he yells, but it’s followed by a statement of hope: “You can’t hurt me.” It’s true; the song itself proves Bartees can’t be ignored. – D.C.
Listen to the songs below.