Jon Pareles | Jon Caramanica | Lindsay Zoladz
Powerful Statements, Memorable Hooks
No short list can sum up the plenitude of remarkable songs that appear every year, from commercial bangers to standout album tracks to one-time digital apparitions. So don’t treat this as a ranking. Enjoy it as a playlist.
1. Avenue Beat featuring Jessie Reyez, ‘F2020 (Remix)’
What the “F” stands for sums up a simple, nigh-universal sentiment about this year, which helped this song easily explode on TikTok. It’s delivered with a droll, self-conscious shrug, airy harmonies and twitchy percussion; for the remix, Jessie Reyez adds some survivor’s guilt.
2. BTS, ‘Dynamite’
There’s nothing to do but succumb to the sheer smiley calibrated optimism of this K-pop smash — and, perhaps, to marvel once again at how much Michael Jackson taught pop.
3. Ashley McBryde, ‘One Night Standards’
Ashley McBryde provides pithy, matter-of-fact details of a random hookup — “I don’t really care if you’re here when I wake up” — and while the music swells, her heart stays cold.
4. Sarah Jarosz, ‘Johnny’
In a luminous web of guitars and mandolin, Sarah Jarosz sings with calm compassion about thwarted expectations: “You know that nothing’s for sure/And an open heart looks a lot like the wilderness.”
5. Tame Impala, ‘Lost in Yesterday’
As Kevin Parker warns about wallowing in nostalgia, his music flaunts it, with a brisk triplet beat and production that revisits the 1980s. (Read the feature.)
6. Lido Pimienta featuring Li Saumet, ‘Nada’
Born in Colombia and based in Canada, Lido Pimienta fuses Colombian traditions and electronics in startling and satisfying ways on her second album, “Miss Colombia.” In “Nada,” she sings about sorrow, loss and fearlessness, with a clip-clopping Andean beat and a mesh of woodwinds, voices, samples and synthesizers, at once steadfast and eerie.
7. Bad Bunny, ‘Yo Perreo Sola’
“I twerk alone,” the Puerto Rican phenomenon Bad Bunny sings over a skeletal but insinuating beat; the song’s video features him in drag. He’s demanding respect for women’s choices, defying the machismo of too much Latin pop. (Read the review.)
8. Tiwa Savage, ‘Koroba’
Over a crisp Afrobeats groove with hints of Middle Eastern modes, besieged by sudden salvos of percussion, the Nigerian songwriter Tiwa Savage suavely mocks corrupt, immoral politicians. (Read the feature.)
9. Stevie Wonder featuring Rapsody, Cordae, Chika and Busta Rhymes, ‘Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate’
The beat is go-go, inseparable from Washington, D.C.; the lineup of rappers before he sings insists that Stevie Wonder wants to reach a younger audience. And despite the jaunty harmonica hook, his anger at the injustices of 2020 is unmistakable.
10. Rapsody, ‘12 Problems’
A mournful choir loops behind Rapsody’s furious, rapid-fire amalgam of elegy and protest: “All we see is murder murder murder.”
11. Busta Rhymes featuring Kendrick Lamar, ‘Look Over Your Shoulder’
Busta Rhymes declares that he’s “upholding the fundamentals” as he raps over a Motown groove and the voice of a young Michael Jackson. The track is assembled from an old rap by a lately silent Kendrick Lamar and a frenetic syllabic fusillade from Busta Rhymes, both of them showing how wildly a flow can metamorphose.
12. Dua Lipa, ‘Boys Will Be Boys’
Most of Dua Lipa’s disco-loving album “Future Nostalgia” revels in letting desire overcome reason, but the martial, orchestral “Boys Will Be Boys” is the corrective: a catalog of the ways women constantly have to defend themselves from male entitlement. “If you’re offended by this song you’re clearly doing something wrong,” she maintains. (Read the feature.)
13. Goodie Mob, ‘Frontline’
The Atlanta hip-hop group Goodie Mob, founded in 1991, merged rapping and singing long ago. It’s still committed to truth-telling with a backbeat: “Molotov cocktails, chaos, mayhem, picket signs, tear gas, courtesy of Uncle Sam,” its voices snarl.
14. Dumpstaphunk featuring Chali 2na and Trombone Shorty, ‘Justice 2020’
New Orleans funk has always had righteous aspirations; in this song, a serious backbeat underlines a clear message.
15. KeiyaA, ‘Rectifiya’
In a song that only gradually surfaces from a hazy, looping, percussive vamp, the Chicago-based songwriter KeiyA ponders how to balance empathy and self-preservation.
16. Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Garden Song’
Amid fingerpicking and gusts of low-fi distortion, Phoebe Bridgers whisper-sings a mysterious dream-logic tale of growing up and trying to find herself. (Read the review.)
17. Bonzie, ‘Alone’
An abyss opens under the syncopated guitar picking and demurely isolated vocals of Bonzie — Nina Ferraro — as she captures a quintessential quarantine mood.
18. Tyler Childers, ‘Long Violent History’
The music harks back to deep Appalachian roots: a country waltz with fiddle and banjo, sung with raw backwoods gusto. But the lyrics confront police brutality.
19. The Strokes, ‘The Adults Are Talking’
Setting cryptic alienation amid clockwork, constantly evolving guitar counterpoint, the Strokes are instantly recognizable, and still at their prime. (Read the review.)
20. A.G. Cook, ‘Lifeline’
In the hyperpop that A.G. Cook has concocted with his PC Music cabal and with Charli XCX, electronic sounds and tweaked vocals proclaim their artificiality. But in songs like “Lifeline,” human yearning comes through. (Read the feature.)
21. The Chicks, ‘March March’
Country hasn’t sounded like this, with a blipping beat and four-letter-word lyrics. The arrival of fiddle and banjo doesn’t change things; it’s 2020, and divisions can’t be bridged. (Read the feature.)
22. Bruce Hornsby featuring James Mercer, ‘My Resolve’
With a string ensemble, a hopscotching melody, homey piano chords and guest vocals from James Mercer of the Shins, “My Resolve” contemplates art-making and Sisyphus.
23. Tristan Perich, ‘Drift Multiply: Section 2’
“Drift Multiply” is an album-length work, in 10 sections, for 50 violins and 50 channels of electronics. Using both Minimalistic repetition and continual change, the music is prismatic, undulating and restless.
24. Ìfé, ‘Music for Egun Movement 2’
Bells, percussion and electronics meld with a Yoruba prayer honoring ancestors, at once futuristic and hypnotic.
25. The Microphones, ‘Microphones in 2020’
This 45-minute song — the first seven minutes are instrumental — merges a memoir of a life spent in indie-rock with philosophical musings. The diffidence of Phil Elverum’s voice is belied by the song’s length and ambition. It’s carried by acoustic guitars restlessly strumming a few chords, but all sorts of other sounds materialize along the way.
Shuffle these in, too:
Norah Jones, “How I Weep”; Sam Smith featuring Burna Boy, “My Oasis”; Perfume Genius, “On the Floor”; Sylvan Esso, “Frequency”; H.E.R., “I Can’t Breathe”; Valerie June, “Stay/Stay Meditation/You and I”; Alicia Keys, “Time Machine”; Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “What’ve I Done to Help”; Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave”; 070 Shake, “Come Around”
New Rabble-Rousers, Older Reliables
In a year when time seemed to stretch and blur, it was the quick-hit aesthetics of TikTok that brought so many songs (both new and old) to the fore.
1. RMR, ‘Rascal’
At once a stunning, soothing devotional and also a startling, shameless gimmick, “Rascal” was this year’s most refreshing anomaly. Built on the melody of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Bless the Broken Road” (turned into a peak-treacle country-pop anthem of the mid-00s thanks to a Rascal Flatts cover), RMR’s version trades the original’s romance for hymnal tragicomedy. His world of casual scamming, drug-trade chicanery, anti-cop rancor and ecstatic flexing is beatific.
2. ppcocaine featuring NextYoungin, ‘3 Musketeers’
The year’s most chaotic arrival was that of ppcocaine, a stripper turned rapper who squeals raunchy non sequitur lyrics that beg to be squealed along with. The deluge of TikTok videos soundtracked by her songs was sudden, and demonstrated a bottomless appetite for abandon, salaciousness and cheek.
3. Lil Baby, ‘Emotionally Scarred’
Yes, “The Bigger Picture” is the more conventionally political song, a sharp toe-dip into fraught social currents. And yes, “Woah” is bright, catchy and brutally dismissive. And yes, “We Paid” is gloomy and sinister. But “Emotionally Scarred” is all of these things.
4. Saweetie, ‘Tap In’
Using the beat from Too Short’s buoyant smooth-hyphy track “Blow the Whistle” is a bit of a gimme, but Saweetie takes ownership of it with rhymes that are tart-tongued, witty and full of arched-eyebrow exasperation.
5. Lil Mosey, ‘Blueberry Faygo’
“Blueberry Faygo” was one of the year’s most fervently pursued song leaks before its formal release. Perhaps that’s because of its slurry, cheery vibe — the song is almost koanlike in its perfect emptiness. It has the ease of a kiddie anthem: even though the lyrics talk tough, nothing about it is a threat.
6. Internet Money featuring Don Toliver, Gunna and Nav, ‘Lemonade’
This song has it all: parched alt-rock guitar, Gunna’s love for his mom, Nav’s PJ/PJ (pajamas/private jet) boast and, thanks to Don Toliver, one of the year’s most vivid hooks, rich with dynamic shifts, narrative arc and emotional release.
7. Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion, ‘WAP’
Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé, ‘Savage (Remix)’
Cardi is one of the great comedians in hip-hop, but while her public persona might tend toward the slapstick, as a lyricist, she’s much more sly, toying with social-comfort norms and straight-facedly committing to the most vivid, campy and raunchy of details. By comparison, Megan plays it straight on “WAP,” though she’s much looser on the remix of “Savage,” which extended the song’s life beyond its TikTok breakthrough. Megan’s biggest role this year might have been as an inspiration, though: emanating a gravitational pull so intense that it got Beyoncé thisssssssss close to working blue.
8. Cam’ron, ‘… 50 bars …’ Freestyle
This Instagram throwaway filmed in a parking lot was packed with wit, bracing storytelling and savage insults, delivered with a shrugging casualness earned via decades of practice. In a year when the context of musical discovery and absorption was in more turmoil than ever, this act of breezy happenstance was a jolt.
9. Vedo, ‘You Got It’
A sturdily written, crisply sung song about the restorative power of nurturing love. Honest! A cleansing remedy for a year light on sincerity, emotional safety and great, old-fashioned R&B.
10. Breland featuring Sam Hunt, ‘My Truck (Remix)’
Breland, a pop and R&B songwriter, intuited his way to a sterling country-rap crossover innovation with “My Truck.” It was so effective and unexpected that it drew in Sam Hunt to sing-rap about “muddy old clodhoppers and a Mossberg pump.” (Read the feature.)
11. DJ Khaled featuring Drake, ‘Popstar’
Popcaan featuring Drake and PartyNextDoor, ‘Twist & Turn’
Yung Bleu featuring Drake, ‘You’re Mines Still’
Even a relatively fallow year for Drake results in a sprinkling of guest appearances carefully tending to bits of his style architecture. “Popstar” updates his familiar threads of dismissiveness and bravado; “You’re Mines Still” continues his maniacal multiyear anthology of acute heartbreak; and “Twist & Turn” extends his grip over the sound of the global party.
12. Priscilla Block, ‘Just About Over You’
Priscilla Block gained attention online for self-aware, lightly comic feminist pop-country songs like “Thick Thighs” and “PMS.” “Just About Over You” is more conventional, and demonstrates that her pokes at genre pieties are rooted in reverence.
13. CJ, ‘Whoopty’
Pop Smoke is gone, but drill persists, in this case executed by a rapper from Staten Island and a producer from, of all places, Cyprus. “Whoopty” is insensitive fun, catchy and hair-raising.
14. Taylor Swift, ‘Betty’
The song on “Folklore” that most directly called back to Taylor Swift’s debut album was “Betty,” an agonized tale of teenage misdirection and regret that doesn’t let anything get in the way of Swift’s pinpoint descriptions of what it’s like to see yourself as both the hero and the victim. (Read the review.)
15. Morgan Wallen, ‘7 Summers’
A rabble-rouser with a gift for severe sentimentality, Morgan Wallen is torn between being a Nashville disrupter or a smooth cog. “7 Summers” leans toward the latter, but is so calm, so effortless, so lustrous in its nods to urbane country of the 1980s that it almost passes for cool.
16. Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo, ‘Savage Love (Laxed — Siren Beat)’
Initially, Jason Derulo was perceived as the bad guy for taking Jawsh 685’s TikTok hit instrumental and building a whole song atop it, but that casual pilfering led to a No. 1 Billboard smash, and proved that good outcomes aren’t always born from good intentions. (Read the feature.)
17. Avenue Beat, ‘F2020’
Claire Rosinkranz, ‘Backyard Boy’
Tai Verdes, ‘Stuck in the Middle’
It was the year of the out-of-context TikTok breakthrough, a phenomenon that hewed to no specific genre — hip-hop dominated, but occasional flickers of indie-pop gained traction. “Backyard Boy” is blithe, sweet jangle-pop, while “Stuck in the Middle” is deceptively calm sleaze. And “F2020” is a tenderly sung soundtrack of the march to oblivion that this cruel, vicious, unsparing year has been.
18. Holly Humberstone, ‘Falling Asleep at the Wheel’
A cool whisper of close-friends tragedy, in which you can’t save the person you care about so deeply, largely because you can’t save yourself. (Read the feature.)
Let’s not forget about …
24kGoldn featuring Iann Dior, “Mood”; 645AR featuring FKA twigs, “Sum Bout U”; Jhené Aiko featuring H.E.R., “B.S.”; Kane Brown featuring Swae Lee and Khalid, “Be Like That”; Bo Bundy, “Mi Barrio”; Eric Church, “Stick That in Your Country Song”; Dua Lipa, “Break My Heart”; glaive, “Astrid”; Jack Harlow, “Whats Poppin”; Mustafa, “Air Forces”; Noname, “Song 33”; Rico Nasty, “iPhone”; SZA featuring Ty Dolla Sign, “Hit Different”
… and a clutch of songs that came out toward the end of 2019 but for various reasons impacted this year:
Lil Uzi Vert, “Futsal Shuffle 2020”; J.I. the Prince of N.Y, “Need Me”; Smoove’L, “New Apolos” (renamed “Apollo”); StaySolidRocky, “Party Girl”
A Jukebox of Moods
Songs that took big swings — lyrically, emotionally, sonically — helped offset the frustration of not being able to listen to them shoulder to shoulder in crowds.
1. Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé, ‘Savage (Remix)’
With all due respect to the other member of the Carters, there’s something about collaborating with another strong woman that brings out the best in Beyoncé, especially when she’s rapping. (It was, after all, her first team-up with Nicki Minaj that educated us about what goes down when it’s a billion dollars on an elevator.) Megan Thee Stallion’s solo cut of “Savage” was universally beloved enough to start a TikTok craze, but Beyoncé’s supremely dialed-in remix elevated it to an all-out anthem. But of course, the Queen is really here for a coronating co-sign of Megan Thee Stallion — the defining artist of a year that seemed a never-ending showcase for her bravado, poise and finely calibrated fury. “Savage” is so much more than a meme, an Instagram caption, a TikTok dance: It is a joyous assertion of Black female personhood in a world that needed it as desperately as water.
2. U.S. Girls, ‘4 American Dollars’
Relocating to Canada a decade ago has given U.S. Girls’ art-pop mastermind Meghan Remy the distance to observe some bigger-picture American realities and distill them into slyly catchy songs. “We all do what we gotta do to pass in this world where they say, ‘It’s not personal, it’s business,’” she croons on the inviting but incisive “4 American Dollars,” a song that practically invents its own genre of late-capitalist disco. Its stirring power comes from the contrast between the cold indignities Remy and her backing singers enumerate and the warm, consoling tone of their delivery. “You can do a lot with four American dollars,” they promise — a lie sung sweetly enough to be briefly believed. (Read the feature.)
3. Charli XCX, ‘Anthems’
“Sometimes I feel OK, some days I’m so frightened,” Charli sings on her quarantine confessional “Anthems,” a blaring, strobe-lit plea for the normalcy of a night out with friends. Her antic delivery and high-contrast production from PC Music’s Danny L Harle and 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady heighten the song’s anxious, cabin-fever feeling, but the cathartic scream-along chorus more than lives up to its title.
4. Bad Bunny, ‘Yo Perreo Sola’
The telegenic superstar Bad Bunny’s driving, Latin Grammy-winning reggaeton anthem “Yo Perreo Sola” proves that a song can have a subversive message and a beat that lures the entire club to the floor. The guest vocalist Nesi gives voice to a woman who just wants to dance alone, free of harassment, while Bad Bunny, in his verses, supports her prerogative: “Te llama si te necesita/Pero por ahora está solita” (“Calls you if she needs you/But for now she is alone”). The wild, vibrantly hued video finds Bad Bunny reveling in drag style and redefining machismo in the process.
5. Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, ‘Rain on Me’
Lady Gaga’s otherworldly return to the dance floor wasn’t about blackout, where-are-my-keys-I-lost-my-phone escapism so much as the importance of partying on in spite of past trauma. “Rain on Me,” her winning house-pop duet with Ariana Grande, captured this complicated feeling particularly well: “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive,” the two sing, before the beat drops and the chorus explodes into an embrace of cathartic acceptance. (Read the round table.)
6. Sufjan Stevens, ‘America’
An ominous breakup song about the 50 states, from the former bard of the 50 states himself. “I have loved you, I have grieved, I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe,” Sufjan Stevens sings in his sweet-but-salty tone, likening his questioning of American values to a crisis of faith. In a year that surfaced so many of the ambiguities of the American experiment, this long, hypnotic song was a welcome space for rumination. (Read the review.)
7. The Weeknd, ‘Blinding Lights’
It’s always a blessing when the year’s most overplayed pop song happens to be one you wouldn’t mind hearing a billion and one times anyway. A propulsive, modernized bit of ’80s pastiche, “Blinding Lights” sounds like the guy in the paper drawing from a-ha’s “Take on Me” video has been on a three-day bender and is absolutely convinced the red car over there is following him. Bonus: When all those eerie images of an empty Times Square started making the rounds early in the pandemic, this song was a fitting soundtrack.
8. The 1975, ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’
The 1975 uses the bright, brassy sound of late-80s pop to tell a tale that back then would have sounded like science-fiction: a series of sexual encounters conducted over video chat. The charm of “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know),” though, is the way it amplifies the awkwardness: “Something about her stare makes you nervous and you say things that you don’t mean,” mutters the usually self-assured frontman Matty Healy. FKA twigs’ operatic introductory vocals from FKA twigs and Bob Reynolds’s rip-roaring saxophone solo add to the overall feeling of ecstatic maximalism.
9. Kathleen Edwards, ‘Glenfern’
“We toured the world and we played on TV, we met some of our heroes — it almost killed me.” That’s just one of the emotionally generous recollections tossed out by the Canadian singer/songwriter/cafe owner Kathleen Edwards on “Glenfern,” the warm, conversational number that opens her excellent comeback album “Total Freedom.” The song is a meditation on youthful aspirations and the sobering reality that sometimes accompanies their actualization: Her rock-star dreams didn’t turn out as planned but, she admits in the chorus, she’ll always be thankful for once believing in them. (Read the feature.)
10. Taylor Swift, ‘Betty’
No, it’s Betty. The crown jewel of “Folklore” is a return to both the sound (openhearted acoustic guitar) and the setting (the cutthroat jungles of high school hallways) that first made Taylor Swift a star more than a decade ago. But time has added a depth to her writing (“Betty, right now is the last time I can dream about what happens when you see my face again”; swoon), a freedom to her embodiment of fictional characters and, perhaps most thrillingly, a few well-earned quarters to the swear jar.
11. Halsey, ‘You Should Be Sad’
The rawest scorched-earth breakup song of the year doubles as proof that the Jersey girl Ashley Frangipane can more than handle a country song. (See also: her 2020 episode of CMT Crossroads with Kelsea Ballerini.) “I’m so glad I never ever had a baby with you,” Halsey sings, tossed off in the middle of it all because it’s somehow only, like, the seventh most vicious line in the song. Ether!
12. Soccer Mommy, ‘Circle the Drain’
“It feels like there’s mold in my brain, spreading down all the way through my heart and my body,” sings Sophie Allison on Soccer Mommy’s searching second album “Color Theory,” providing an especially striking description of the paralysis of depression. Melancholy as her lyrics may be, the catchy melody at the heart of “Circle the Drain” urges her on, like a comforting pep talk from an old friend. (Read the feature.)
13. beabadoobee, ‘Care’
Twenty-year-old Bea Kristi may have not been alive during the ’90s, but the sweetly sneering fuzz-pop of “Care” proves she totally gets them on a spiritual level. “I don’t want your sympathy, I guess I’ve had it rough,” she sings as a buildup of percussion comes crashing down around her during a gleeful chorus. Conjuring the ghosts of K Records past, Kristi makes a compelling argument for a shared sensibility between Generations X and Z. (Read the feature.)
14. Jamila Woods, ‘Sula (Paperback)’
Named for one of Toni Morrison’s most memorable heroines, the Chicago singer and poet Jamila Woods’s “Sula (Paperback)” is a warm and serene meditation on sensuality and personal growth: “I’m better, I’m better, I’m better, I’m better,” she sings, the melody escalating like a verdant vine up a wall. Woods also released a “hardcover” version of the song, backed by a funk beat, but it’s the sparse “paperback” cut, featuring accompaniment from Justin Canavan’s arpeggiated guitar, that allows her luminous voice to shine brightest.
15. The Chicks, ‘Gaslighter’
Hell hath no fury like a woman who knows exactly what you did on her boat. “Gaslighter,” the Chicks’ first album in 14 years, sometimes had to contort itself a little awkwardly to address both the personal and political. But it triumphed mightily on the title track, a pungent smack of post-divorce country-pop that — for listeners less inclined to fall into the “Shut Up and Sing” camp — easily doubles as yet another fiery rejoinder in the direction of the White House. (Read the feature.)