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Top 50 Songs of 2020

These are the songs that loved us back in a year that we really needed it

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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.

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    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”

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    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”

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    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

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    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”

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    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”

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    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”

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    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


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