The 100 Best Songs Of 2020
Welcome to a whopper of a mixtape. If you've been living under the rock 2020 dropped on all of us back in March and spent the last nine months finding comfort in the sounds of your childhood (hell, even 2019), we have some good news for you: As crappy as this year has been for anyone with a shred of empathy, the jams were ample. When the news cycle had us at a loss for words, we found quiet songs to speak for us. When we wanted to smile without looking at our phones, buoyant distractions abounded. If racism, xenophobia and sociopathic behavior made us want to scream, Black musicians found astonishingly inventive ways of saying "um, did you just start paying attention?" And since we're still stuck in this storm for the foreseeable future, we present to you a silver linings playlist: 100 songs that gave us life when we needed it most. (Find our 50 Best Albums list here.)
The 100 Best Songs Of 2020:
100-81 / 80-61 / 60-41 / 40-21 / 20-1
Popcaan (feat. Drake & PARTYNEXTDOOR)
"TWIST & TURN"
Popcaan's second project with Drake's OVO Sound includes a feature from the Champagne Papi himself in all his patois glory. The serpentine "TWIST & TURN" might have been one of the year's "song of the summer" contenders, thanks to its star power, memorable chorus and Caribbean vibe, courtesy of dvsn's Nineteen85 (who also produced "One Dance" and "Hotline Bling"). Instead, it's just another fire track by reggae's unruly god. —Otis Hart
BeatKing (feat. Queendom Come)
Houston rapper-producer BeatKing has a catalogue of regional hits under his belt, but none of them have had the impact of "Then Leave." Featuring Queendom Come, who collaborated with BeatKing nearly a decade ago on the Texas club anthem "U Ain't Bout That Life," the song gained popularity largely due to TikToks by fellow Houstonian Lizzo and hip-hop power couple Cardi B and Offset. With trunk-rattling bass, humorous bars and an earworm of a chorus, the song might not be best for polite company, but it's perfectly fit for nightlife, whenever it returns. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder & Kamasi Washington (feat. Phoelix)
With a smooth groove and incisive message that could only be achieved by combining Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington and 9th Wonder, "Freeze Tag" finds humanity within the confines of a sociopolitical climate that offers little reprieve. Phoelix lends vocals to this offering from the supergroup's Dinner Party, taking on the proliferation of police brutality and systemic racism. "They told me put my hands up behind my head / I think they got the wrong one," he sings, recalling Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" with the follow-up lines, "I'm sick and tired of running / I've been searching where the love went." This is a bona fide anthem that addresses the injustices still taking place in 2020. —Desiré Moses (WNRN)
Hum's seismic space rock is a tender beacon to gear nerds in their feelings. Post-metal and hardcore bands like Deafheaven, Deftones and Hopesfall owe a debt to a sound that's equal parts shoegaze, arena rock and heavy metal. Dropped out of nowhere in mid-summer, Hum's first album in 22 years opens with a helluva hello. Battering "Waves" sculpt eons of rock formations from gently bending guitar and one gargantuan riff as Hum's head-banging amplifier worship glides further out along the celestial curvature. —Lars Gotrich
"Save A Kiss"
Listening to music in the midst of a global pandemic is an exercise in retrofitting songs with double meanings. Jessie Ware's "Save A Kiss" lends itself beautifully to the effect. The dancefloor-ready single arrived when many couldn't have been further from club lights and fellow humans, but it nevertheless felt perfectly suited to isolation. Nostalgia — for days of old, for the touches we crave but can't have — is baked in, leavened by an optimism that the reunion is worth the wait if we can just hold out a little while longer. It's a jubilant rush of animation in a time of suspension, as Ware's voice floats over a bed of pulsing, '80s-kissed electro-pop to remind us that anticipation itself can also be a form of euphoria. —Briana Younger
Mireya Ramos is a founding member and one of the principal voices of Flor de Toloache, the female mariachi based in New York City. Ramos posses one of the most underrated voices in any language, one that can handle a classic song like the 1942 ballad "Angelitos Negros." Previously covered by Roberta Flack, it's a song that calls as much on old-school R&B as mariachi belting. Ramos has been hinting at releasing a full album on her own at some point and this single shows it will be worth the wait. Get to know her voice now. —Felix Contreras
It's nearly impossible to isolate a favorite from Xavier Omär's if You Feel because each song lends itself to the others. Ultimately, "SURF" is the most fun on the album and just too strong of a bop to be denied. Omär is at his best when he stretches his vocal range and ramps up the tempo. Add Masego and a lighthearted video, and you've got a big winner for 2020. —Bobby Carter
"Hang In There Girl"
One of the most empathetic songwriters of her generation, Arkansas-born country star Ashley McBryde specializes in songs that feel utterly lived-in — they're keenly understanding about what goes on in dive bars, or what it feels like to defiantly pursue dreams long deferred. In "Hang In There Girl," McBryde crafts the song she didn't know we'd need in 2020: a simple mantra of resilience and reassurance. When she sings, "Trust me when I say, you're doin' fine," her kindness feels vital. —Stephen Thompson
"Everything Is Connected"
In a year that keeps capsizing, "Everything Is Connected" by U.K. jazz singer and songwriter Zara McFarlane rights the ship of serenity. "Born not to surrender, but to hope," she sings over a thick bass line, its sacred sound supported by acoustic and electronic drums. A testimony to being Black and British, McFarlane explores colonialism through the folk traditions and rhythms of her Jamaican ancestry. With history that informs the present, "expanding into a constant future / Into a lifelong web," her enchanting voice gives honor to a spirit that connects us all. —Suraya Mohamed
"Radio Cloud" begins almost in mid-thought, sneaking the melody in on an upbeat to introduce a narrator in no rush to get to whatever's next: "Who was I then? Who the hell am I now? / I'll do whatever till I figure it out." That attitude pretty well sums up the career of Ruston Kelly, a Nashville songwriter too punk to be a traditionalist and too gruff to go full pop, who seems to watch trends in Americana just closely enough to shift his weight away from them. Here, he styles himself as a young Moses parting the sea to find his lane — then spins the camera 180 degrees, inviting listeners to do the same for themselves. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen
Aly & AJ
"Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor"
"Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor" starts with a slow build, invoking the glittery sensation of entering the club for a debauched evening. "We don't stop until mascara's on the dance floor," they sing in the chorus. Everlasting rebellion is the battle; anyone can take up Joan's mantle and anywhere can be your dance floor; it's just a matter of nerve and soundtrack. —LaTesha Harris
"i see america"
Joy Oladokun's "i see america" captures the distinctive spirit of this year of protest, its insistence that racist violence, and the worldviews that make it possible, not be allowed to remain buried beneath veneers of piety or politeness. Her folk-soul track, laid down in the solitude of her attic home studio, closes the distance between intimate grief, relational responsibility and national legacy. A reedy, tender singer, she sounds like she's through with softening and steadying her performance before it's over. —Jewly Hight (WNXP 91.ONE)
Trinidad and Tobago singer Patrice Roberts is the star of two huge soca songs this year. The first is her collaboration with singer Nessa Preppy and producer Travis World, "Splash," one of the year's most-watched videos that sadly didn't qualify for this list due to its December 2019 release. The second is "Tender," a gorgeous Caribbean bop that promises love long after the fete is over. The way Roberts turns over the word "eternally" in the chorus, emphasizing a different syllable each time, gets me every time. —Otis Hart
"Quién Me La Paga"
La Doña's music is never separate from struggle. Like the rest of her debut EP, Algo Nuevo, "Quién Me La Paga" is rooted firmly in San Francisco, where Cecilia Peña-Govea was born and raised, and in resistance to the rapid gentrification and rising costs of living for the city's Black and brown communities. Its first movement, a cumbia, notes the costs of not only rent and bills but of the personal rituals of nails, clothes, cars and weed that sustain joy beyond subsistence in a city growing ever more hostile to its working class. It builds to a reggaeton chorus that celebrates the resilience of community, resisting displacement in the joyful repetition of its titular question. —Stefanie Fernández
Meet Me @ The Altar
This one's for the girls who never saw their own at punk shows growing up. Meet Me @ The Altar first met online, as three young women of color sharing their love for the swoopy-haired pop-punk acts that'd play Warped Tour after the turn of the millennium. "Garden" synthesizes the trio's scrappy EPs and Paramore influences into a headline event, as neon-blasted guitar riffs burst over double-kicked drums and Edith Johnson's voice sends your heart into the stratosphere. —Lars Gotrich
"Tombeau pour Mesdemoiselles De Visée"
New to the theorbo, the lengthier sibling of the lute? Let Rolf Lislevand, the Norwegian master of the instrument, introduce you to its quiet charms and rich color palette. This intimate and bittersweet "tombeau," a musical memorial to lost loved ones, is by the little-documented Robert de Visée, who was likely the guitarist in residence for Louis XIV. While essentially sorrowful, the music, with its gentle repetitions and subtle dissonances, allows a few stray rays of sunlight to poke through the solitude. —Tom Huizenga
David Crosby works with a lot of young Americana artists, and when I had the chance to interview him this year, I asked him: Which young artist are you most excited about right now? His answer: Sarah Jarosz. And for good reason. The first time I listened to her song "Johnny," I found myself singing along with the chorus. There's something about it that feels like a long-lost hook from a '90s alternative rock song, but Jarosz manages to seamlessly integrate it into her own Americana-leaning songwriting style. That hook, combined with her stellar voice, is what makes this track shine. —Raina Douris (World Cafe)
"Eso Que Tu Haces"
Lido Pimienta has now, after years of uncompromising artistic development, mastered what feels like a tectonic, elemental power; whatever physical or imaginary space she places herself in is immediately and completely enthralled to it. Even in heartbreak, as on "Eso Que Tu Haces," she has a transcendent presence, locating a relationship's rift, cracking open its causes and confronting the messy contents, wholly. A lament, yes – but never a cry for help. Why would a mountain weep? —Andrew Flanagan
Moor Mother spits ancestral fire to confront our present. The Philly poet and experimental musician released several albums and collaborations in 2020, including True Opera, an improvised punk missive with producer Mental Jewelry. They both set aside electronics for live instruments, open to the whims of mistake and instant creation. Crass and No Trend course through these veins, especially on "Look Alive," as a scuzzed-out groove spirals out of an urgent question: "At what point do we stand up for trans youth? At the breaking point? At the point of no return? At the point of release, of retraction?" —Lars Gotrich
"Steppy Downs Road"
Albion, take me away. British fiddler Sam Sweeney has written a timeless tune for the ages, the kind of instrumental that you can listen to hundreds of times and never grow tired of. It's almost inconceivable that the violin has existed for 500 years and no one during that time stumbled across this monster of a melody. —Otis Hart