Great songs have a freedom that albums don’t because great songs only have to pull off their trick once. It’s like how a great SNL sketch can be a terrible movie or why Vine was an underrated miracle of online comedy. Sometimes an artist can get a lot more done in miniature. When people say that no one listens to albums anymore, they’re obviously mistaken, but they mean that no one listens to certain kinds of albums anymore. They won’t wait to get to the good part, and an industry that’s been padding out their wares for decades has had to adapt to a new reality where the customer is always dope.
From Hailey Whitters to Hayley Williams, from King Von to Christine and the Queens, here’s a supercut of just the good parts: The songs that have challenged and delighted and comforted us through a fucking weird crisis. Here are our favorite à la carte musical moments that have defined the first half of 2020.
50. Lizzo, “A Change Is Gonna Come”
The National Anthem for a country that hasn’t changed nearly enough since it was written, sung by our real president. She loves us, we got this, give her the EGOT. — Dan Weiss
49. Bob Dylan, “I Contain Multitudes”
“There’s so many ‘sides’ to Bob Dylan, he’s round,” somebody (Bob Dylan?) is supposed to have said; “I Contain Multitudes,” a revolving kaleidoscope of couplets and cliches, plays as a thesis statement for more than just Dylan’s late style. The Poe and Blake references are hilariously shallow, but a kaleidoscope doesn’t take you deeper into anything. Instead it reveals stranger things happening on the surface of the world than you could see before you started turning it, catching it in its own light. “Everything’s flowing, all at the same time,” this holographic projection of a singing Transcendental cowboy reports, and then makes an ominous allusion to John Wilkes Boothe, again. — Theon Weber
48. New Kids on the Block feat. Boyz II Men, Big Freedia, Jordin Sparks, & Naughty by Nature, “House Party”
1. The demand for new new jack swing greatly exceeds the supply; just look at Bruno Mars. God bless but he can’t take all those requests by himself. If he’s New Jack Santa Claus (with Another Bad Creation as his workshop of elves), these are his trusty reindeer: On Teddy, on Riley, on Nasty, on Freaky, on Tony, on Toni, on Toné, on Do Me, on Poison, on Cooleyhighharmony.
2. The last time Justin Timberlake had a song this good was “My Love.” Stay mad.
3. Yes, the video is a big part of it. Oh, I’m sorry, are you too busy to watch? — D.W.
47. Whethan feat. Grandson, “All in My Head”
Electro-pop producer Whethan lets his punk side shine on this two-and-a-half-minute heart racer. Wits are abandoned on the crunching, overripe bass and “Song 2″ clang of the beat, while Grandson’s angsty, apathetic vocals drip with the cocky attitude of disaffected youth. “All in My Head” wants you to make bad but harmless decisions, like doing donuts in the Walgreens parking lot. If you’re listening to this song, you’re 19. It doesn’t matter if you’re 45 years old, now you’re 19. — Kat Bein
46. Bright Eyes, “Persona Non Grata”
Conor Oberst is still a thoughtful, songful, extravagantly detailed troubadour under his own name. His self-titled 2008 record ranks among the very top of his achievements, and the hydraulic anticapitalist outrage of Desaparecidos was ahead of the curve on both Occupy and the triumph of St. Bernard. But his emo quotient as Bright Eyes has incomparable gravitas. The strophic New Dylan-ing, the labyrinthine album intros, the Donnie Darko stare above the mouth where quavering doomsday-prophet lyrics come out; it’s been nine years since any of it. The new dystopia is putting on a kilt to the strains of a Bollywood song, for a date, no less, with someone “underfed and depressed.” And then come the bagpipes. — D.W.
45. Breland, “My Truck”
If the song’s not stuck in your head within 40 seconds, you win a free truck. There won’t be any winners today. Except for Sam Hunt, who would like his Billy Ray “Old Town Road” money now. — D.W.
44. The Strokes, “The Adults Are Talking”
“They will blame us, crucify and shame us / We can’t help it, if we are a problem,” Julian Casablancas murmurs, exacting, coiled, so, so numb. “We are trying hard to get your attention.” He could be singing for or to your parents, your children, you. Impeccably syncopated and broadly halcyon, “The Adults Are Talking” exists in a murky space where past, present, and future intersect, uncertainly — that grey area where Philip Larkin’s famed poem “This Be The Verse” makes more sense than any of us would care to admit. Meanwhile, the music bears an overdetermined, filigreed snap that, somehow, the Strokes execute offhandedly, casually, with a patient elan. — Raymond Cummings
43. Rina Sawayama, “STFU!”
Rina Sawayama threw nü-metal a surprise party for its 20th birthday and everyone’s invited, except for the real-life industry racists whose comments her antagonist/dinner date quoted verbatim in the video. Let the bodies hit the floor, starting with those guys. — D.W.
42. Caribou, “New Jade”
“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? — Ryan Reed
41. ITZY, “Wannabe”
That the winding music-box noises, flamenco guitar strums, will.i.am-circa-“Scream and Shout” sub-bass presets, and skittering Timbaland programming all assert themselves before the first verse has ended is a hallmark of the best generation-blending K-Pop maximalism. The keep-it-simple-stupid chorus (“I don’t want to be somebody / Just wanna be me” — who can’t relate?) is a respectable interjection from the West. And the dancing could come from anywhere if you believe in yourself. — D.W.
40. Chad Matheny, “The Ballad of HPAE Local 5058”
As the brainy Emperor X, Chad Matheny has proffered astoundingly empathetic laptop-emo-folk tunes for more than 20 years. But in the last few, surviving his own battle with testicular cancer has only sharpened a determination to clarify the world’s unsolvable healthcare crisis to the faithful tune-seekers that sponsor his Bandcamp releases. “I owe 30,000 euros to the German corporation / That just cured me of a terminal cancer / Now I’ve got 87 notices reminding me / They can’t care at all if my ending came too soon,” he sang in 2017, devoid of metaphor. Three years later, he resurrects the old Woody Guthrie template to dig deeper into that industry’s corruption, even going as far as calling out the “stockpiles of PPE” not serviced to healthcare workers. What does it mean when a singer-songwriter’s specifics are more painstakingly reported than entire websites claiming journalism? He even cites his sources. — D.W.
39. Eminem feat. Juice WRLD, “Godzilla”
Eminem is more or less a fire hydrant at this point, with a reliably unstoppable flow, but it’s often not necessary and sometimes even in the way. When you need it, though, it doesn’t take long to realize how much you take its presence for granted. Sure, that metaphor was a little slippery, but the man’s fripperies can still cripple these peripheral MCs in triplicate and rip them to bits while they’re taking shits and be a pain in their ass like pilonidal cysts. — D.W.
38. Hailey Whitters, “All the Cool Girls”
You work with Lori McKenna (“Girl Crush,” “Humble and Kind”) if you want a great tune, not a TikTok smash. So here’s a cheerfully snippy one from a wallflower trying to get her Daria on but can’t play it, well, cool enough to be dispassionate observer, and before she knows it, the whole cigarette pack is gone. Just because “all the cool girls can’t decide who they want to be tonight” doesn’t make her feel more at ease, so why not, over verses that hint at spooky dub, contemplate joining them? Sometimes a “midsummer night dream / the top-down Cadillac, blue jeans” requires just the right balance of self-assurance, longing to be someone else, and a killer chorus. — D.W.
37. Jasmine Infiniti, “Yes, Sir”
If we must live with a throbbing, blistering headache through the waking hours, it’s only fair that we are allowed to dance to it. The degraded sonics, irretrievable sample, hi-hats rusted into a wet rattle of chainlinks, bass coiled around your nerves like an inoperable tumor, all it points to is that the only true drop in this world is death. — D.W.
36. Billie Eilish, “No Time to Die”
It’s safe to say that 2020 doesn’t suck for Billie Eilish. Not long after turning 18, she scooped the Big Four awards at the Grammys and made history before following that up with another milestone: Becoming the youngest artist to pen and record a theme song to a James Bond film. “No Time to Die” — as always, written with her brother FINNEAS — is one for the Bond tune pantheon alongside Adele’s “Skyfall” and Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever,” thanks to Eilish’s beyond-her-years soprano that tops a quietly haunted melody with icicles. The movie’s release may have been pushed back, but by the time theaters are a thing again, its theme song will have already conquered audiences worldwide. — Jolie Lash
35. King Von, “Took Her to the O”
You try enunciating the word “Kankakee” six times in one song without your tongue turning to molasses.— D.W.
34. The 1975, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”
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. (These sort of suicide missions are the 1975’s whole Thing.) 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.
33. Psychic Graveyard, “No”
Every person mourns in their own unique way, but the bereaved clod Psychic Graveyard singer Eric Paul invents for “No” is in a league of his very own. This guy’s solipsistic, overly literal, his mind orbiting another planet, the mix unevenly doubling his inner monologues: “What do I wear to your funeral / When we were together, I never wore clothes.” Synth player Nathan Joyner, guitarist Paul Vieira, and drummer Charles Ovett all up the psychodrama by savage degrees, leading off with a grinding, foghorn dirge that eventually expands into a punishing industrial hailstorm. Of course the home of this bleak, dour thrill is entitled A Bluebird Vacation. — R.C.
32. Banoffee, “Permission”
Rape is no longer a taboo subject. Hell, both of America’s major-party presidential nominees have been accused of sexual assault. Society is overdue to face the music, and in the case of Australian dancer-turned-singer Banoffee’s sparse electro-ballad “Permission,” the intimate, arresting track is both sobering and empowering, a standout between Look at Us Now Dad’s glittering, synth-heavy bops. “It was a way of me processing how my boundaries had been broken,” she told NPR. “I expected people to love me a certain way, but it very quickly twists into something darker and more sinister and speaks about the type of consent that can be broken, that can break someone.” — K.B.
31. Sada Baby feat. King Von, “Pressin”
In a scene with no shortage of local legends (Veeze, Drego and Beno), Sada Baby stands tall as the most prominent figure of Detroit’s current street rap renaissance. As prolific as he is charismatic, Sada will aggressively, gleefully rap about pouring pints and stealing your girl in the same breath. “Pressin” is the biggest standout from Skuba Sada 2, the second Sada Baby project of 2020 before we even reached the halfway point. The funereal keys and ricocheting, mortar-round drums lay the perfect foundation for Sada and King Von’s tag-team threats. You don’t want to get clowned by a dude who even jokes about calling himself a “walking lick.” — Max Bell