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The 50 Best Songs of 2020

The circumstances of 2020 threw an age-old debate over the role of music in our lives into sharp relief.

Dua Lipa
Photo: Hugo Comte

The unique circumstances we all found ourselves in this year—Covid-19, racial and political strife—threw an age-old debate over the role of pop music in our everyday lives into sharp relief. Should it reflect the tenor of the times or should it serve as pure escapism?

Like many of the things we used to argue about in an ever more democratized and genre-fluid music world, there no longer seems to be any need to pick a side. As our list of the best songs of 2020 proves, you could have easily had it both ways. Those in doom-scroll mode could revel in Phoebe Bridgers surveying the fallout of the coming apocalypse, Grimes lamenting the death toll caused by the opioid epidemic, and Troye Sivan feeling “vulnerable, so sad and alone.” Taylor Swift, who handily reached our list’s limit of three songs per artist, spent her quarantine exiling herself in a cocoon of rustic alt-folk. The fact that she still managed to produce some of her most acclaimed songs to date might just stick in the craw of those who saw their willpower and productivity evaporate during the pandemic. Dammit, Taylor.

If all you wanted was to push all that depressing shit out of your mind for a few minutes, you had Charli XCX’s party anthems, or Annie floating in romantic bliss on “In Heaven.” With “Levitating,” Dua Lipa created an ebullient ode to feeling great so infectious that two different versions of it made our tally. And then there’s Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” the year’s biggest phenomenon and one of the smuttiest song to ever top the charts. Its message of unrestrained female sexual liberation certainly reflects some part of the zeitgeist, but in 20 years, it will probably be difficult to gauge much about what the state of the world was in 2020 from listening to it. Who cares? Jeremy Winograd


50. Owen Pallett, “A Bloody Morning”

The highpoint of Owen Pallett’s Island is his most climactic and literary song since 2010’s “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt.” Ten years later, Lewis sails drunk and crashes his ship in “A Blood Morning.” Pallett’s lyrics are vivid and cinematic, pierced with moments of lucidity and ending in sodden shock: “The shared dream left me shaking/The memory is threating to capsize every ship upon the sea.” Just as propulsive are the song’s stirring orchestral arrangements, which allow the London Contemporary Orchestra to unleash its full force against Pallett’s towering vocal melody. The narrative is arresting, and it’s one of Pallett’s finest yet. Eric Mason


49. Lilly Hiatt, “P-Town”

With Walking Proof, Lilly Hiatt has emerged wiser and more confident than ever, and appears to have put some of her problems behind her. “P-Town” is ostensibly another Lilly Hiatt song about a failed relationship, but this one is electrifying and ebullient, sounding like a classic Loretta Lynn track amped up with huge, fuzzy guitars. “I don’t think I’m who we thought I was,” Hiatt suggests, perhaps taken aback by her newfound sense of defiance. Winograd


48. Lil Baby, “Emotionally Scarred”

Even for a rapper with as much skill and promise as Lil Baby, “Emotionally Scarred” marks a turning point, from an almost blinkered purveyor of party and kingpin yarns to one of more soulful ruminations. The surprisingly moving track begins with a burst of crackling literary scene-setting—“A love letter came through the mail, it said ‘I miss you’”—before Baby gets cagey and starts bragging as a kind of defense mechanism, a pretense he then heartbreakingly trades for the chorus’s confession of his own hurt and the blows that have shaped him. As he bares his vulnerabilities more nakedly than he ever has before, Baby manages a thrilling gear shift in each of the verses to up the ante in intensity, accelerating melody and rhythmic discipline. “Emotionally Scarred” is Lil Baby’s unlikely triumph of bluesy melodrama. And what line better captures living in 2020 than “I’m tired of being tired of being tired”? Charles Lyons-Burt


47. Drive-By Truckers, “Slow Ride Argument”

A driving, minor-key rocker that stylistically lands somewhere between Blue Oyster Cult and early R.E.M., “Slow Ride Argument” is yet more evidence that Drive-By Truckers transcend the Southern rock label they inexplicably still get pigeonholed into, with its overlapping vocal hooks and cheeky advice for cooling down after a heated debate by going for a drive. Winograd


46. Rico Nasty, “IPHONE”

Joining forces with hyperpop heroes 100 gecs’s Dylan Brady, Rico Nasty writes a new page in trap’s love affair with Auto-Tune and pitch distortion on “IPHONE.” Brady’s filtered vocal treatment electrifies Rico’s signature yowl, and it’s immediately clear that emo-rap and hyperpop share a spirit of abrasive excess. Rico takes up the latter’s fondness for the 2000s with references to Tamagotchi toys and appeals that her love interest “Leave a heart on my wall so I can know you like me.” Whether it’s through the rage of her typical rap rampages or the candied crush melodies of “IPHONE,” Rico distills emotion in its purest, most extreme forms. Sophia Ordaz


45. Car Seat Headrest, “Weightlifters”

“Weightlifters” is furiously grooving dance-rock, stylistically far afield from Car Seat Headrest’s previous work but as adrenaline-inducing as anything they’ve ever done. The song epitomizes and justifies Will Toldeo’s unorthodox approach, wherein the music is interpreted both electronically and more traditionally by the full band before then being combined. Most of the time, it’s not possible to distinguish where the electronica ends and the rock n’ roll begins—which is as it was intended. Winograd


44. Charli XCX, “Claws”

To call “Claws” peak Charli XCX would be too easy. The track’s euphorically, obsessively repetitive lyrics (“I like, I like, I like, I like, I like everything about you,” she repeats four times per chorus) and ultimate sublimation into a frenzy of glitched-out vocal samples epitomize hyperpop, a subgenre that Charli pioneered. Her excitement is palpable: She’s just thrilled to be in love and to be in the presence of the one she loves. Charli offers a string of charming XCX-isms (“Aeroplane, you are so fly/Singin’ songs by Jeremih”) before her exhilaration explodes like confetti into heavily processed exclamations (“Everything about you/Everything about you”) and ebullient trance synths. While other songs on How I’m Feeling Now reach deeper into Charli’s psyche, “Claws” declares and shares her joy in a time when we really need it. Mason


43. Halsey, “You Should Be Sad”

Of all the genres Halsey hopscotches through on Manic, “You Should Be Sad,” whose subtle lap steel is contrasted with searing electric guitars, is the most unexpectedly rewarding. The track is a country-inflected kiss-off that obliquely references the singer’s history of miscarriages: “I’m glad I never, ever had a baby with you/’Cause you can’t own nothing unless there’s something in it for you,” she sneers, locating a cynical silver lining amid profound trauma and loss. Sal Cinquemani


42. Destroyer, “The Raven”

“The Raven” is a rush of catharsis that opens with a slippery couplet—”Just look at the world around you/Actually no, don’t look”—and proceeds to careen through delightfully idiosyncratic territory, from a “city of dying the embers” to a “petite terror train” and “the Grand Ole Opry of Death.” Despite the apocalyptic imagery, the tone is invigorating. “It feels so good to be drunk on the field again,” Dan Bejar intones, his voice quivering with the kind of ardor that he rarely draws for his singing anymore. Like most of his lyrics, if there’s a literal meaning to the line, it’s impossible to parse, but the implication is clear enough: Bejar is feeling the groove again. Winograd


41. The 1975, “I Think There’s Something You Should Know”

The 1975’s long-awaited Notes on a Conditional Form is sort of a mixed bag by design, a collection of songs that finds the band trying on all manner of genres and styles with a tracklisting that often feels more like a playlist than an album. One of its most interesting developments is the relative decentering of frontman Matty Healy’s narration, which played so heavily into the band’s previous work (and their general mythos). “I Think There’s Something You Should Know,” however, feels like the emotional, personal core of the album. The numbly glitchy, piano- and beat-driven song leads to a final third that carries some of the most sincere self-reflection that Healy has ever recorded, delivered without his usual winking irony. “I’d like to meet myself and swap clothes,” he sings, a revelatory moment that finds Healy reaching for self-reflection in a way that feels distinctly real. Walsh

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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