30. tricot, “真っ黒 (Makkuro)”
If there were any justice, the success of 2019’s biggest rock breakthrough, black midi — a band that makes it more frustrating that there’s no easy portmanteau of “virtuosic” and “perverse” (pervertuosic?) — would’ve opened the floodgates for these decade-strong Kyoto math-rockers. Except where Geordie Greep gurgles like he’s about to rip the ring off Frodo’s finger, Ikkyu Nakajima sings and even harmonizes pretty and emotive; one of the few math-rockers to actually add up to something. She moves with a purpose. — D.W.
29. TOKiMONSTA feat. EARTHGANG, “Fried for the Night”
Tune in, turn on, and drop it down low with L.A. beat queen Jennifer Lee’s surrealistic slow grind. “Fried for the Night” is a rave and a half, thanks in good part to Atlanta duo Earthgang’s trippy flows. The monolithic lead single from her sixth full-length Oasis Nocturna is, in TOKiMONSTA’s own words, “dedicated to those psychedelic moments where our reality opens up a new point of view.” Your move, Ibiza. — K.B.
28. Playboi Carti, “@Meh”
Given Playboi Carti’s event-horizon approach to the hook, in which repeating a dense syllable or two often enough collapses a track into it like light, you might imagine you can hear “@MEH” in your head without playing it. But Carti is a satellite here, not a singularity; his syrupy chirp laps in decaying orbit around an obsessive 16-bit music-box burble that’s the track’s real center of gravity. Carti swallows and mumbles boasts like they’re being transmitted across a vast distance; every now and then the beat below throws out an arpeggio like a flare. — T.W.
27. Skeleton, “Catacombs”
This punishing Austin trio have only grown more turgid and volcanic since their earlier EPs. They spend this first taste of their upcoming eponymous debut album unloading their blackened punk-metal like a cement mixer operating directly above your face, each successive jackhammer of double-bass drum pushing more wet concrete into your nostrils. Hey, no kinkshaming. — D.W.
26. Jay Electronica feat. Jay-Z, “Flux Capacitor”
Kudos to whichever dogs and cats living together it took for Jay Electronica to realize he’d better dust off this so-called album before there isn’t a world to release it in anymore. But its densest production is somehow also its most old-school, and we’ll leave that for co-conspirator and ace Rihanna sampler James Blake to sort out. It’s too bad Jay and Jay didn’t release this in the midst of Lemonade fever because then we could compare these rejuvenated middle-aged pals’ opus to Harry Nilsson and John Lennon’s lost weekend. Jay-Z preens like his pre-billionaire self (“Why would I not have a watch like a Saudi prince?”) and Jay-E recycles that old hip-hop saw of switching deftly from Nation of Islam big-ups to Cutty Ranks-inspired trash talk (“Send for the hacksaw / Take out the tongue”). A midlife crisis to nod your head to. — D.W.
25. The Magnetic Fields, “The Day the Politicians Died”
Like Distortion’s “California Girls,” this mordant little ditty from the world’s preeminent wholesaler of mordant little ditties decorates a murderous fantasy with the reedy innocence of Claudia Gonson’s voice. But that song mined its deadpan lulz from the over-the-top solipsism of Stephin Merritt’s homicidal distaste; here, if anything, the (grimmer, funnier) joke is how straight this wishful piano sketch can be taken, as petty private revenge fades into universal liberation. “It’s all one big party now,” it concludes before two minutes are up, but not before rhyming “we’re different from the beasts” with “let’s eat all the priests.” — T.W.
24. lojii, “lo&behold”
On Due Rent, his 2017 Swarvy-produced album, Philadelphia’s lojii rapped with refreshing candidness about his financial struggles: “I still ain’t make a check but I’m takin’ bets.” This year’s lo&behold is a spiritual sequel in the most literal sense; lojii delivers diaristic verses that find him pushing past an existential crisis about his life and career. And the title track showcases the power of his deftly unadorned prose, his resonant but low, slightly raspy voice. Swarvy’s thumping, downtempo suite soundtracks lojii’s submission to fate, his embrace of patience. It’s the core of an album that finds peace in the process of creation without the certainty of reward. — M.B.
23. Dreamcatcher(드림캐쳐), “Scream”
Equipped with a full-spectrum payload of pomo pop-rock weaponry — darkly twinkling Evanescence verses, Jim Steinman-core guitar-opera bombast with attendant postreunion Fall Out Boy whoa-ohs, wordless chorus that is both rock riff and EDM drop, at least one rap breakdown, broadsword in 4K video — Dreamcatcher take an only-way-to-be-sure approach to three-minute song. “Scream” fuses the whiplash precision of K-pop with a genre of melodramatic electro-rock that had already ripped most of it off anyway; it sounds like you’re hearing two of it at the same time, like eating a Big Mac. — T.W.
22. Lil Wayne, “Mama Mia”
The Best Rapper Alive™ can’t necessarily turn it off and on at will anymore, but he can, apparently, still turn it off and on. This is an on, his most jovial and rewarding track since 2015’s James Brown-flipping “I Feel Good” (which, sadly, isn’t on YouTube), and it even comes with a strong, if long, full-length, Funeral. The shockingly downcast Carter V was even longer, though, and freed from that burden’s expectations, Tunechi rediscovers a looseness we’ve all been missing, so delighting in his own “Titty-fuck your baby mama / She breastfeed your child while I do it” boast that he has to repeat it twice. You already know how great he can be at his best, and “Mama Mia” comes close enough to it that Weezy himself may still be the best thing on a song that’s an early candidate for the year’s best beat (someone’s been listening to Sophie!) and video (the Wu-Tang hoodies, the CGI baby, the monkey heads). — D.W.
21. Dixie Chicks, “Gaslighter”
After the right-wing shitheads of country radio forced them into exile, Dixie Chicks returned from a decade-plus hiatus with “Gaslighter,” a scathing power-pop anthem that’s equally empowering and raging. Featuring the sorely missed country trio’s radiant, signature harmonies and Jack Antonoff’s widescreen production (those drum bursts), “Gaslighter” is a rallying cry against an irredeemable liar that not so subtly pays homage to the group’s earlier kiss-offs, “Goodbye Earl” and “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Except this one’s chorus is even harder to get out of your head: “Gaslighter, big timer / Repeating all of the mistakes of your father,” taunts long-suffering divorcée Natalie Maines. She doesn’t owe anyone an explanation. Still, we’re dying to know: What exactly happened on her boat? — Ilana Kaplan
20. Thundercat, “Dragonball Durag”
Of all things, venerable Los Angeles bassist Stephen Bruner has recently become the most unexpected (and funkiest) ambassador of yacht rock. You can hear the processed smoothness all over “Dragonball Durag,” where Thundercat comes off like the awkward man’s Barry White and somehow ends up with his catchiest-ever solo tune. In the hilariously on-the-nose video, he finds the titular durag in the trash and suddenly thinks he’s Stanley Ipkiss in The Mask, failing to woo the likes of Kali Uchis, comedian Quinta Brunson, and finally, an amused-but-not-really HAIM. Next time on Dragon Ball Z: Will Thundercat enjoy piña coladas and getting caught in the rain? — Daniel Kohn
19. Erik Griswold, “The Hive”
The only thing more badass than a piano orchestra is a prepared piano orchestra. “The Hive” wasn’t titled arbitrarily; set upon by 16 pianists, these 16 eerily tuned pianos churn out fathomless melodies that shudder from dolor to ecstasy and back. It’s as though you’re stuck in “the Shimmer” from Jeff VanDerMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy — literally rooted there, in the process of becoming a tree. With this recording, the spark that fueled this year’s All’s Grist That Comes to the Mill, Brisbane composer Erik Griswold has unleashed a tyranny that doubles as a deliverance. — R.C.
18. The Used, “Blow Me”
Admit it, your money was not on the Used in the 2020 comeback sweepstakes, and even the scene kids were caught off guard by this slab of bleeding meat thrown to them like dogs. A reasonable convert hears some Snapcase in “Blow Me,” but no one who’s being honest can take In Utero off the table entirely. The breakdown is admirably psychotic; if you’re even a little bit curious you should get in the pit with this nailbomb. Just, you know, shield your face. — D.W.
17. Roddy Ricch, “The Box”
Rap songs that top the Hot 100 for two months have historically been party anthems like “In Da Club” or “Hot in Herre” that were expertly engineered for crossover success. But Compton rapper Roddy Ricch has ruled the charts in 2020 with an ominous, mid-tempo trap beat and an intricate chorus that features 93 words and about three different vocal melodies. In the streaming era, the good fortune of being the first song on an album people love, like Roddy’s blockbuster Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial, counts more than universal appeal. But that silly “ehh-err” vocal loop probably helped. — Al Shipley
16. Phoebe Bridgers, “Kyoto”
You know you’re a bonafide pop star-qua-singer-songwriter once you’re learned how to transmute interior ennui into a world-beating anthem. “Kyoto” the song feels regal, soaring, aloft on golden horn charts, even while Phoebe Bridgers, its author, stews at the center of this pealing storm. She blows off Japanese destinations while on tour, meandering through insecurities, memories, regrets, tumbling deep into her notebook. There’s a bummed out exhilaration here in this warm, intimate re-re-reminder that wherever you happen to go, there you ultimately are. — R.C.
15. Disclosure feat. Eka Roosevelt, “Tondo”
Everyone’s favorite U.K. house brothers quietly closed out February with their most surefire dynamite in years. Its Ecstasy EP took their sampling skills to new heights, the peak of which manifested in the vibrant swing of “Tondo,” built generously and brilliantly from Cameroonian musician Eko Roosevelt’s 1985 disco-funk banger “Tondoho Mba.” It just thumps a little heavier now, with a fresh new coat of groove. — K.B.
14. Halsey, “You Should Be Sad”
If “You Should Be Sad” is any inclination, Halsey could make a camp-country album that would leave both Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus proud. The Manic highlight recalls the singer’s rage against an unfaithful ex-lover, strengthening an Americana-tinged ballad with tense rock riffs. “You can’t fill the hole inside of you with money, girls, and cars / I’m so glad I never ever had a baby with you,” she seethes. The song is best heard with its accompanying visual, which takes place in an underground western nightclub and nods to idols as disparate Christina Aguilera, Shania Twain, and Lady Gaga circa American Horror Story. She makes this whole “sad” business sound pretty fun, really. — I.K.
13. Sam Hunt, “Hard to Forget”
“Hard to Forget” does exactly what it says on the label; the hooks will fuck up your summer more than the titular girl in the dress does to Sam Hunt’s. For a country song, it’s got shocking range, pulling in not just Hunt’s signature trap 808s but a prominent sample of Webb Pierce’s 1953 No. 1 song “There Stands the Glass” and even some reggae-lite guitar on the verses. The Pierce tune is woven throughout what may well be country’s first charting hit containing a sample (that isn’t named “Old Town Road,” anyway) and functions as an old-timey parallel to Hunt’s song. “There Stands the Glass” concerned imbibing the sauce to keep thoughts from straying to heartbreak, and Hunt’s modern-country vocal is equally haunted by an ex. Plenty of country music time-travels to the past, but how much of it goes back to the future? — J.L.
12. Lady Gaga, “Stupid Love”
Lady Gaga took pride in being practically the only pop diva who never needed Max Martin’s help making a hit. But she recently decided to, in her own words, “stop being an asshole” and meet Martin, who co-wrote the blaring Chromatica lead single, which has her first-, second-, and third-best hooks in years. Everything about “Stupid Love” (even the title) reeks of a concerted effort to return Lady Gaga to the loud, garish pop throne she commanded so naturally circa The Fame Monster. And after a year of singing tasteful ballads with Bradley Cooper, good — we like her best at her most shameless. We want her stupid, oh, you know. — A.S.
11. Run the Jewels feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier, “Ooh La La”
Three albums and countless summer festivals later, Run the Jewels remain united by their affinity for rap and weed, their antipathy for fuckboys, the law, and craven politicians. The important things. “Ooh La La,” the first single from the forthcoming RTJ4, is a cross-generational rap fever dream that proves Killer Mike and El-P’s synergy remains undiminished. (We’ll see about Mavis Staples and Josh Homme’s.) This is rap as tag-team WWE, the outrageous braggadocio of one half inspiring more outlandish boasts from the other. With a hook that samples Greg Nice from Gang Starr’s classic “Dwyck” and scratches from DJ Premier himself, “Ooh La La” pays homage to RTJ’s predecessors while remaining irreverent to everyone and everything else. The perfect soundtrack for pissing on a passing royal’s footwear. — M.B.