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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


    40. Gorillaz – “Aries” feat. Peter Hook

    Sounds Like: The beach between Joy Division and New Order

    Key Lyric: “I can’t play a happy tune on my own, so stay by my side”

    Why It Matters: Sometimes pop culture is just fated to work. Case in point: “Aries”. The song dropped weeks into a worldwide quarantine, a time when reality began to truly set in for everyone — that the things we love, the things we cherish, and the things we take for granted will be at our fingertips (or, rather, six feet away) until further noticed. So, hearing Gorllaz’s Damon Albarn hum, “‘Cause I feel so isolated without you,” hit harder than it would have any other time. But, we can connect through song, and Albarn does exactly that on “Aries” as he reunites with his UK brethren. Peter Hook, it’s been a while. –Michael Roffman


    39. Lady Gaga – “Rain on Me” feat. Ariana Grande

    Sounds Like: Getting baptized in a club

    Key Lyric: “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive”

    Why It Matters: “Stupid Love” may have been the best song on Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, but “Rain on Me” is the album’s definitive 2020 anthem. Gaga and Ariana Grande, both still grappling with their own deep traumas, remind us there’s always a way out. That whether or not we believe it in this very moment, eventually we’ll find ourselves on the other side of the nightmare. Until then? We’ll sob and throw it down in our tiny apartments, with the salty tears stinging our fresh open wounds. But we’ll find comfort in the fifth banana bread loaf we just baked and in the fact that we’re still here and trekking along, nine. long. months. into quarantine. No one ever said the healing process would be pretty. (Side note: How fucking amazing will it be when the pandemic is over and we can *finally* dance to this house-pop banger in a proper club setting? I get chills just thinking about it.) –Lake Schatz


    38. John Carpenter – “Weeping Ghost”

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    Sounds Like: The Master of Horror has returned to post-apocalyptic New York

    Key Lyric: No words on this — could you imagine — but the scale that drops in around 1:20 is delirious and dizzying in all the right ways.

    Why It Matters: The last half-decade has been good to John Carpenter. Or should we say, John Carpenter has been good to us over the last half-decade. With his Lost Themes series, the Hollywood icon has proven why we listen to his scores like pop music — they’re catchy, they’re delectable, they’re the soundtracks to our lives. “Weeping Ghost”, off his forthcoming third volume, descends upon us like a thick fog. It’s a highway marauder, sent from a distant wasteland, and Carpenter never stops grooving. This isn’t happenstance: If you recall from our 2018 Composer of the Year interview, Carpenter is no stranger to the ways his music has turned into a dance party, and this is certainly headlining material. It’s just a shame Snake Plissken isn’t around to pair it with another misadventure. Perhaps, it’s on us to find one for ourselves. –Michael Roffman


    37. Rina Sawayama – “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)”

    Sounds Like: The patriarchy being trampled on a crowded dance floor

    Key Lyric: “You should never be ashamed to have it all/ Yeah, yeah/ It’s gonna be okay/ Yeah, you’ve come a long way”

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    Why It Matters: This list is full of sharp commentaries on gender roles and norms, but it’s unlikely that another one hits the dance floor any harder than “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)” by former Artist of the Month Rina Sawayama. The song calls out how women may have to adopt male behaviors (and often the more obnoxious ones) in order to succeed in some situations, and if they can’t or won’t be “one of the boys,” they get labeled a “bitch.” Here, Sawayama repurposes that insult by taking matters to the dance floor where “bitch” can be a term of empowerment and women can have the same confidence as “the boys” without all the BS that comes along with it. In her own words, “I wanted to make a club fashion banger that makes you feel like THAT BITCH whoever you are.” Mission accomplished. –Matt Melis


    36. The Chicks – “Gaslighter”

    Sounds Like: A triumphant return in the nick of time

    Key Lyric: “You think it’s justifiable, I think it’s pretty cruel/ And you know you lie best when you lie to you”

    Why It Matters: Not only is “Gaslighter” a kick-ass track, but it’s also the first single off of what was The Chicks’ first record in 14 years, and what a triumphant comeback it was. Produced by Jack Antonoff, in pure Chicks fashion, the vocals are perfectly harmonized and the lyrics are biting. While the song is technically about band member Natalie Maines’ divorce, the chorus could be about any man, which for many of us can be supremely relatable. “Gaslighter” is a reminder that The Chicks, by any name, still reign supreme, despite being away for more than a decade. –Annie Black


    35. Perfume Genius – “On the Floor”

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    Sounds Like: That person you just can’t shake from your thoughts or heart

    Key Lyric: “The rise and fall of his chest on me (Mmm)/ I’m trying, but still, it’s all I see”

    Why It Matters: The urgency of an album title like Set My Heart on Fire Immediately — or even a song called “On the Floor” — might seem over the top in a year that most of us spent all dressed up with nowhere to dance (or, more likely, binge watching trash television in sweatpants). But leave it to Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) to remind us that so much of life’s drama takes place between our ears and beating in our chest. In the case of Hadreas, it’s the intoxication of a crush that takes over his life and turns into obsession, but as the singer explains, the song is more about the possibility of something like love and how it impacts us in profound ways. In a year in which all of us have been pushed and pulled and prodded by the most powerful of emotions — even while barely leaving the house — Hadreas’ song explains how such paralysis could leave anyone on the floor emotionally. –Matt Melis


    34. Jamila Woods – “Sula (Hardcover)”

    Sounds Like: Drinking a cup of soothing honey tea on a crisp, sunny fall morning

    Key Lyric: “Lay on my pillow, you think I’m so weak (Weak)/ Soft as my skin is, my power’s discreet (Discreet)”

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    Why It Matters: A month after releasing her song “SULA (Paperback)”, inspired by the first Toni Morrison novel she ever read, Jamila Woods released a follow-up single and music video, “SULA (Hardcover)”. The “”Hard Cover” version, unlike its predecessor, repurposes the lyrics over an upbeat and vibrant production driven by the rhythmic humming of drums. In an open letter to fans, Jamila wrote, “The novel shows the evolution of a friendship between two Black women and how they choose to navigate society’s strict gender roles and rules of respectability.” The song was accompanied by a tasteful NSFW music video, where Woods tastefully undresses as her backyard transforms into a bedroom full of greenery, mirrors, and portraits. The video, like the song, showcases Jamila stripping down to her interior — the part that no one sees, rejecting the confining ideas of identity. “SULA” is about empowering sexuality, embracing the erotic, and creating a path outside what society deems okay. –Samantha Lopez


    33. Lil Uzi Vert – “Baby Pluto”

    Sounds Like: The last thing you hear before the tractor beam pulls you skywards

    Key Lyric: “Yeah, we bought the four-door, had to get ready for war”

    Why It Matters: This song is so good that it spawned an Uzi alter ego; so iconic a collaborative album with Future was partially named after it; and so powerful that hip-hop fans are ready to forget about any other rapper or dwarf planet that shares that name. Uzi’s mainstream breakout came on the melodic song “XO Tour Llif3”, but here he eschews the singing that made him a superstar. Against a banging cosmic beat, Lil Uzi Vert puts on a rap clinic, showing off half a dozen rhythmic ideas and keeping up a stream of punchlines hot enough to melt glass. Eternal Atake is almost a concept album, with recurring sketches that seem to imply an abduction and interstellar adventure. “Baby Pluto” isn’t just the first glimpse of the spaceship; it’s an epic journey all on its own. –Wren Graves


    32. BTS – “Dis-ease”

    Sounds Like: Funky beats, perfectly maintained skin and hair, and hope

    Key Lyric: “Woo, there’s no eternal night/ I’m stronger/ A spark of fire/ I will never fade away”

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    Why It Matters: The cleverly styled “Dis-ease” blows just about everything else out of the water. It’s a retro jam. It’s a summer cookout. It has perhaps the best pop pre-chorus of the year, and the group’s hookiest melodies this side of “Boy with Luv”. It’s got J-Hope written all over it, straight from the boy who often feels like he tumbled out of the mid-’90s with his bright beats, flair for style, earworm phrasing, and unparalleled charisma as a dancer. Whenever BTS brings in a horn section, the sun simply shines a little brighter. There’s a breakdown in the bridge of “Dis-ease” that caused me to break down as well. “One for the laugh, two for the show,” they say — 400 for the number of times I’ll have listened to this track before the end of the year. Put this song in the credits of a coming-of-age film. Put this song as the pre-encore closer of the setlist when BTS is able to tour again. Put this song together with the choreography it deserves and fly the boys directly to the Grammy’s stage. It’s wonderful. –Mary Siroky


    31. Frances Quinlan – “Rare Thing”

    Sounds Like: The elation, however temporary, of absolutely knowing that there is goodness in this world

    Key Lyric: “I know there is love that doesn’t have to do with taking something from somebody”

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    Why It Matters: Although Good should not be rare, lived experience has clearly dictated that it is. So, when we do see pure, unadulterated wholesomeness, it fills us with the swirling warmth that validates existence. That’s what Frances Quinlan experiences as she watches her young niece grow, a feeling she charmingly captures in “Rare Thing”. It may be a cliché to find the best of humanity in the unguarded earnestness of a child, but that doesn’t make it false. When you’re young, you naturally embrace moments like this. When we get older, we gratefully have music like Quinlan’s to remind us they exist. –Ben Kaye


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