From comeback queens to fresh discoveries, these songs defined the year and proved that not all of it was entirely dull, dismal, and dreary.
This year is a lot of things for sure, but whether we will want to admit it or not, it wasn’t all entirely terrible. Sure, the foreseeable future is still a little bleak, and we will maintain that 2020 is the year that we will not want to speak of, but if you listened closely, music definitely helped us get through some rough and tough spots. From comeback queens to refreshing discoveries, there have been songs that saved the scene, saved the year, and most importantly, saved our lives in one way or another.
Whether it was a worn out playlist that soundtracked your day-to-day or an escape to the tragedy that Miss Rona brought upon us, we have to tip our hats to what really has been a good year for music. Imagine, even with the many limits and challenges stacked up, there was a lot of good songs to go by, with the creativity being upped in terms of marketing, production, and pure artistry.
So here it is, without agenda, fanfare, and no favoritism—20 of what we strongly believe to be the best songs for the year that…whatever, let’s get this over with and hit the forward button to 2021, shall we?
Ready? Press play.
The kings of K-pop continued to reign supreme in 2020, releasing their first English-language song to chart-topping success. The track not only solidified their global stardom, but also demonstrated pop perfection. It’s a credible disco-pop pastiche, bright and inoffensive enough to soundtrack much of the year as the feel good song of the year. (Think of it as a “big tent” pop song created to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.) Glittery, infectious, and equipped with a final chorus key change, Dynamite lives up to its name.
Care opens the record, starting off dreamy before it pummels into an angsty chorus. Even in the anger, it’s playful, since she knows that even though someone wronged her in the past, the experience has since helped her to grow. It’s the kind of song you wish had been released when you were in high school, so you could simmer to it when you were in a mood after class. Over all, Beabadoobee’s record takes you back to that late 90s to early 2000s era of romantic comedies and it’s eponymous soundtracks that embraces every teen’s angst, heartbreak—a moment encapsulated in a promising artist that longs to be Stephen Malkmus.
The atmosphere is intimate and understated yet assured, as if we’re hearing her thoughts before she has time to process them. “I’ve never been a natural,” she sings over dreamy electric guitars and a lapping drumbeat that sounds buried under several layers of comforters. She seems lost in the moment, like she has no one to please but herself. Mirrorball is a testament that Swift’s songwriting and ear for sweeping melodies has not been limited to stellar pop hooks, but always flawlessly capturing the gut wrenching moment of a calm, steadfast endurance after a storm.
Lianne La Havas—Bittersweet
Bittersweet, the opener of her eponymous third LP, envelopes La Havas’ heart-wrenching ache with production that’s as warm and inviting as a crackling bonfire. La Havas has captured the beautiful arc of romance and the rubble it leaves behind. Her guitar parts echo and rival the ambiguous, unresolved chords and supple rhythmic games of Joni Mitchell and Radiohead, while her voice moves from low, sultry insinuations to open-throated declarations.
Haim—I Know Alone
I Know Alone might be the most daring Haim track yet. Proving that the sisters have explored a dalliance with UK garage, they’re at their best when pushing the boundaries. With its shuffling 808 beats, ethereal layered vocals and glitching production, Haim’s signature sound has been imbued with something that sounds suspiciously close to UK garage. It’s a brilliantly bizarre combination, but a fusion that sees them continue to grow. This song is a staple in my pandemic playlist because it alludes to a certainty that even loneliness can end. Maybe soon.
Róisín Murphy—Murphy’s Law
Róisín Murphy’s glossy totem to the dance floor is based on an adage that feels extremely appropriate given this year’s circumstances: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. In a press release, Murphy said: “[This] is our crack at a straight up, straightforward, no-frills, disco standard. Oh, and it’s the story of my life. It’s about the nature of the past, it’s often a difficult thing to outrun but it can also be quite comforting…” True enough, there’s a simple sense of belonging to it, which is most felt in the lyrics, “I feel my story’s still untold. But I’ll make my own happy ending. I guess I’d rather be alone. Than making do and mending,”—a definitive strength that only a true disco diva could muster both on and off the dance floor.
Phoebe Bridgers—I Know The End
I Know The End packs an album’s worth of ideas into five minutes and 45 seconds. The song itself begins gently, carefully, with a little eerie submerged distortion, but otherwise a return to the nigh-unbearable intimacy of just her guitar and her fragile, unbreakable voice. Time is an even flatter, smaller circle. And even now, when I take physical- and mental-health walks late in the afternoon with the song on repeat, it becomes a steadfast understanding of what life is living in the year 2020.
The Weeknd—Blinding Lights
Blinding Lights is indisputably one of the landmark songs of 2020. In this track we hear Max Martin’s polish that helped make it a number one single for four weeks: the hurried drumbeat, surging choruses, and neon-lit 80s synth that allowed Tesfaye’s falsetto soar like the euphoric if grinding edge of an amphetamine high. But it’s also easy to hear the broader spiritual resonance in this ode to a lonely man with little joy left except for intoxicants and the object of his desire. With a crystalline synth hook straight out of 1985, the song’s initial success gave The Weeknd the validation he needed to push ahead with the adventurous songs on his latest album, After Hours, which could be Abel’s masterful album in his discography.
Jessie Ware—What’s Your Pleasure?
The message is crystal as it is clear on this one: There’s no pleasure without fun. Jessie Ware and producer James Ford’s intent was pure—to give the listeners an overall feeling of smoky sleaze and a full-on Kylie meets Róisín Murphy in an underground 1980s drag ball. I practically salivated and hit double rainbows after listening to this song on repeat for a good three days straight. So yes, this has to be on the list. It was the best gratification I can give to myself, and maybe yours, while we wait for the clubs to re-open.
Lady Gaga / Ariana Grande—Rain On Me
Lady Gaga made sure her return to pop music was fearless with the all-bangers-no-ballads exposition that was Chromatica. On an album that championed dance music’s ability to heal, Rain On Me is the apex, a group therapy session disguised as a turn-of-the-millennium Euro-house floor-filler. Kitschy and campy, but exuberantly melodic, Rain On Me seemed to face the rain head on—and then deliver you from it. Gaga is earnest, closing her eyes and letting it drench her, while Grande is blithe, as if caught in a downpour on the way home and choosing not to care. Needless to say, this song did not only slap musically, but it also saved us.
Yves Tumor—Gospel for a New Century
The staggering genius of Sean Bowie emerges immediately upon pressing play on an anticipated fourth album as Yves Tumor, which opens with Gospel For A New Century. Tumor’s own brand of brilliance survives in their own mystique, which shape-shifts in kaleidoscopic, sonic morsels that fleetingly reveal themselves through flashing emotional windows. Here, Tumor allows us to momentarily gaze, where the enigmatic title and propulsive production herald grander subjects—perhaps apocalypse, perhaps rebirth—than the broken relationship hinted at in its lyrics.
Megan Thee Stallion—Savage Remix (ft. Beyoncé)
Through what can only be described as pure witchcraft, Beyoncé jumping in and joining Hot Girl Meg makes it feel like you’re hearing this omnipresent hit for the very first time–even if the original already got you hooked good. Together, the pair are an unstoppable force of Houston bravado and empowerment that will boost your serotonin levels just enough to have hope for a world beyond this pandemic. Unlike most pop remixes of the past couple years, Beyoncé goes above and beyond to make this one powerful: She serves up three verses along with a wealth of angelic, whisper-y runs that feel like diva ASMR.
Christine and the Queens—People, I’ve Been Sad
The heartbreaking and emboldening song from Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Letissier has taken on a new resonance during isolation. In the song, she conjures the emotion with gravitas and synth-pop charm. Backed by sauntering keys and quivering strings, Letissier sings in her native French about teenage loneliness and angst. On the chorus, she pleads for presence and permanence, which makes it a song that is blunt, incisive, and vulnerable enough to effectively describe this awful year. It is a synth-pop power ballad that combats that awfulness with an exquisite gentleness, truly a soothing balm for the loneliness that is 2020.
Cardi B–WAP (ft. Megan Thee Stallion)
In a generation where Li’l Kim has been absent for years now, we can all be thankful that Cardi and Meg came together and gave us and anthem with rapid-fire flow and endlessly quotable one-liners. The two hip-hop stars create a female sex-positive anthem as they trade lyrics and reclaim the genre’s sexual narratives from male rappers…and then wipe the floor dry with the boys’ boxer shorts. Of the many words that could describe their duet—dirty, vulgar, nasty, explicit—none come anywhere close to capturing the attitude of the acronym itself. WAP is so decisively absent of shame that it’s now positioned alongside similar anthems by the likes of Khia, Lil’ Kim, and Trina. Viva La WAP!
Rina Sawayama—Comme Des Garçons (Brabo Remix feat. Pabllo Vittar)
In her debut LP SAWAYAMA, Rina creates an expansive musical account of her personal history, all bolstered by her impressive experimental song-writing techniques. And on top of that, she’s somehow managed to make nu-metal sound effortlessly cool. This partnership between Rina Sawayama, and Brazil’s Queen of Drag Pabllo Vittar, made the original even more accessible and club-ready. Comme Des Garcons’ is a song about confidence and there’s no better pairing on this planet to have elevated that. One of my setlist and work-out staples this year–this track pounds and hammers until you have peaked serotonin levels and achieved the confidence you need to tackle this pandemic.
DaBaby–Rockstar (ft. Roddy Ricch)
In 2020, DaBaby showed that he wasn’t just unstoppable; he was flexible. Rockstar, constructed around the rapper’s warbled hook, offers a soothing tone atop a guitar lick and producer SethInTheKitchen’s booming percussion. The result is a single by one of rap’s biggest new stars that also invites in traditional pop listeners looking for a catchy chorus. Musically, Ricch balances out the song with his helium-voiced sing-rapping arriving after DaBaby’s sharp lyrical jabs on the track. However, the fact that Rockstar was not dramatically altered by the remix does not diminish the symbolism of the leading song of the summer being aligned with one of the biggest civil rights movements in United States history. The song already made a statement against systemic racism and police brutality long before the remix was released.
Miley Cyrus—Midnight Sky
Midnight Sky is a showcase of natural progression and a culmination of everything we have come to love about Miley. Leaning into the sparkling 80s nostalgia that has captivated pop music this year, the Bell and Watt-produced track is built on bubbly synths and draws influences from disco, rock, and synth pop. With a sample of Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen, Miley truly transports us to the 80s as she sings about her free spirit, the power of her individuality, and her security in a solid identity. This may be the most confident Miley has ever sounded on a track. Her voice has evolved so much over the years and on the song, she employs her now-signature smoky tone, slight growls, and a rasp that adds rougher textures to the polished production.
Troye Sivan–Easy (feat. Kacey Musgraves)
Earlier this year Troye Sivan transported us into a dreamlike world with his appropriately titled EP, In A Dream. This body of work heard him soaked in an 80s infatuated sound swirled with an indie-pop aesthetic. It was immediately captivating as you found yourself falling into emotions of each track, and one song that really stood out was the confessional, Easy. The glittery new version of the track is deeply layered in 80s influenced production. It’s a lot more upbeat and prominent than the original version, which was instead a bit more experimentally layered. The natural lightness of the production is so playful, euphoric and ultimately dreamy, and you won’t be able to stop yourself dancing immediately.
Chloe x Halle–Ungodly Hour
Chloe x Halle have always been here, teeming with potential just under the surface as Beyonce’s carefully-curated, well-manicured protegees for years. But 2020’s sophomore album Ungodly Hour found the pair hitting their remarkable and confident stride. The project’s title track is doused in funk—an impressive and perhaps unexpected groove from its electronic producers, Disclosure. As the sisters exchange chirps of flirty invitations and angelic innuendos, it’s been clear since day one that Chloe x Halle are the futures of R&B. Now it’s time to pay close and clear attention.
On Fiona Apple’s triumphant album, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, her first in eight years, she looks back at the challenges and learning moments of her formative years with a discerning eye. One of those reflections is the bright and punchy Shameika, where Apple recalls a time when she was being bullied in school and a classmate told her that she had potential, prodding her to ignore bullies at school because she had “potential” to go far in life. The exchange resonated with Apple, both as a child and as an adult, and now with listeners who’ve quoted the lyrics in tweets and Twitter bios. The lesson is clear in this song: Thwart a seismic-shifting loneliness by listening to your inner Shameika.