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
Lil Baby (feat. 42 Dugg)
When I was in the Army, I learned a lot of acronyms and their meanings, but one has stayed with me since I have left the military more than 10 years ago: K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid). And that is what Atlanta's Lil Baby and Detroit's Dugg 42 do on the hypnotic "We Paid." From the Spaghetti Western-style whistle that kicks it off to the minimal beats intertwined with piano keys, the track puts me in a trance. After a minute, I'm dancing in my chair. While Lil Baby shines, you can witness Dugg 42's star continue to rise. —Tarik Moody (88Nine Radio Milwaukee)
"Break My Heart"
If Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia brings Studio 54 to the TikTok generation, "Break My Heart" is a reimagination of Queen's disco crossover hit "Another One Bites the Dust." The dark and funky bassline, combined with the British pop star's distinct vocal delivery, make for a groovy dance floor treat. —Joni Deutsch (WFAE)
"circle the drain"
Sophie Allison, who performs under the name Soccer Mommy, doesn't shy away when faced with an emotional precipice. In "Circle the Drain," the Nashville-based singer-songwriter addresses her experiences with mental health and depression through the fog of a light, almost carefree sound. It's the musical manifestation of asking someone if they're OK and them responding, "I'm fine." I can't think of a more fitting song, or message, for the year. —Stacy Buchanan (GBH)
Sun-El Musician (feat. Azana)
"Uhuru" means "freedom" in Swahili, and the song of the same name by South African musicians Sun-El Musician and Azana is a reminder that the unrest that defined Summer 2020 in the U.S. was not exclusively an American ordeal. Azana sings of a Black underclass that is disrespected and robbed of opportunity, while Sun-El — one of South Africa's deep house dons — conjures a stirring production that urges action while tugging at heartstrings. —Otis Hart
"Ferguson - An American Tradition"
The voices of a new generation rang out in the streets this summer and fall, as America reckoned anew with systemic violence and oppression. That urgency also courses through Omega, the stunning debut by alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins — never more powerfully than on this song, which cycles from elegiac calm through impassioned fury, articulating an ensemble dynamic that Wilkins and his onrushing peer group are forging for themselves. —Nate Chinen (WBGO)
Australian cousins Chloe Kaul and Simon Lam (whose band name fittingly rhymes with "whoa") wrote a haunting piano ballad about a loveless yet devout romance, then smothered the whole thing in melancholic breakbeats and paired the song's left-hand chords with subs you can feel in your chest. When the beat drops leading into the first chorus, it feels like a velvet anvil. My most-played song of the year, and nothing else really came close. —Otis Hart
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit
"Letting You Go"
It's an uncomfortable truth: Some of life's most moving moments are often depicted in a deeply corny manner (see: professional wedding videos, made-for-TV rom-coms). Truly emotional stuff can feel cloying when described by anyone less than a top-tier storyteller – which is why Jason Isbell's undefeated track record of creating intimate character studies with emotional complexity shouldn't be taken for granted. Take "Letting You Go," a standout on an album that may well contain some of his finest songwriting to date: Rather than flatten a father-daughter bond with truisms, Isbell goes long, tracing the arc across time. —Lyndsey McKenna
If one group could symbolize 2020 and its racial reckoning, it has to be SAULT. From NPR's No. 1 album of the year, Untitled (Black Is), it's the track "Wildfires" that captures all of the rage and sadness at this moment in time. Just like the story of the phoenix, it's also a song — as NPR Music contributor Marcus J. Moore noted — about the process of burning down old systems that oppress a people and beginning to create a new one out of the ashes. —Tarik Moody (88Nine Radio Milwaukee)
"Agua de Rosa"
Within each loop and phrase of Angelica Garcia's "Agua de Rosa" is memory. For the first half of the track, they're all vocal — some sound, some spoken. In conversation with her ancestors and herself, each of Garcia's responses land with both comfort and a challenge. "Agua de rosa, chica / Sin nosotros tú no existes," she sings in reminder and in warning. In this dialogue of repetition, Garcia creates a sacred space to look pastward, regarding the totems of inherited femininity with a care befitting holy relics, fraught and precious. —Stefanie Fernández
Inbal Segev & London Philharmonic Orchestra
"DANCE, I. when you're broken open"
In a year that seemed to offer only death and protests, music of extreme beauty, such as the opening movement from Anna Clyne's alluring cello concerto DANCE, came to the rescue. Inbal Segev's cello sings in high register above gently shifting strings and winds in contrasting colors. Clyne's landscape is warm and spacious, a nod to the English pastoral tradition, but tinted with melancholy that ultimately gives way to purgation and, most importantly, hope. (Please listen to the rest of this distinctive work.) —Tom Huizenga
"Gospel First Nation"
The religion forced on Indigenous people by their colonizers makes for mighty unwieldy musical subject matter, but William Prince came to it with uncommon insight this year, attuned to the complexities of descending from both the namesake of Peguis First Nation and preachers among their people. In his ambling folk-country song "Gospel First Nation," he bears amiable witness to the ways that he and his community staked their claims to symbols of incarnation and salvation by fashioning them into comforting familiarly, but largely abandoned features of a remote landscape. —Jewly Hight (WNXP 91.ONE)
Lianne La Havas
Lianne La Havas creates music that resonates on a universal level. On her self-titled album's standout track, "Can't Fight," the South Londoner combines R&B rhythms and soulful melody for an exuberant ballad that conveys the allure and longing of a love that you can't deny. —Desiré Moses (WNRN)
"Joy of Jesus"
Built around a Bible verse extolling Jesus' empathy, this lament by one of Nashville's most fearless young singer-songwriters calls out hypocrisy in a year when it's run rampant and ruined many lives. —Ann Powers
"One girl missin', another one go missin'." This refrain is how Noname brings her attention back to what truly matters: how the deaths of Black cis and trans women require public awareness campaigns before they make headlines. That said, the fact the hook doubles as a course correction of sorts is just as valuable. Noname may regret the "distraction" she caused, by wrestling with how J. Cole's "Snow On Da Bluff" admonished the "queen tone" of her righteous fury. But by revealing that self-negotiation with her initial disbelief, we witness what it means to meaningfully and skillfully transform anger. —Christina Lee
Speed bumps kept slowing down The Chicks' long-delayed 2020 victory lap: A national reckoning compelled the excision of "Dixie" from the band's name, a stadium tour proved impossible due to the pandemic and the Grammys dealt the group a surprising shutout. But "Gaslighter" feels unstoppable anyway: It's a rousing, harmony-rich, devastatingly specific (and yet somehow universal) takedown of a man who knows exactly what he did on Natalie Maines' boat. —Stephen Thompson
"4 My Ppl"
As Goodie Mob reunites with production group Organized Noize, the foundational Southern rap group acknowledge that, once again, we're living in a time where the depictions of government surveillance, concentration camps and a race war in 1995's "Cell Therapy" sound prescient. But this time Goodie Mob finds strength in remembering its purpose: serving the working class Black America that informed and uplifted them 25 years ago: "Every time I write / It be for my people." This restorative Dungeon Family reunion is also a fitting anthem for a year when not even a global pandemic could deter from civil engagement. —Christina Lee
"I Want You To Love Me"
Perhaps early on, Fetch the Bolt Cutters' opening cut was such a rush because it was the first we heard from Fiona Apple in nearly eight years, released in the early, uncertain days of global catastrophe. And yet, to hear the song at the year's end — from the way Apple wrings the life out of the you in that first "I hope that you love me," to the grit in her voice as she admits "none of this will matter in the long run," to the declarative force of "I want what I want" and "I know that you do" to the onomatopoeic clamor of "bang it / bite it / bruise it," until her final drawn-out, hiccupped notes as the fierce, rhythmic chaos that has simmered underneath all along takes over — it remains undeniably bold and wondrous. —Marissa Lorusso
Exactly 47 minutes and 48 seconds after Childish Gambino's 3.15.20 album begins, this old-school jam lets loose with steady accents on each measure's four beats. "47.48" is a soulful pop song, a message of hope that emerges from fear: "Don't worry 'bout tomorrow / The violence, the violence." Keep listening until the outro to hear Donald Glover in sweet conversation with his young son: "Do you love yourself?" "I do love myself," they ask and answer each other. Beaming with the innocence only a child can convey and an adult can appreciate, beauty unfolds as a reminder that we can overcome any danger. —Suraya Mohamed
The narrative threads that weave together Taylor Swift's many perfect songs have rarely been invisible. Her surprise quarantine album, folklore, won notice for its "indie" vibe and collaborators, but to my ears it's the first record where Swift sounds relaxed — certain of her abilities and suddenly less concerned with how every last fan and critic will respond to them. "invisible string" is its apex, another one of those perfect songs, and it plays out like a chance to revisit the romantic world of one or another of her teenage hits — "Our Song" or "Love Story" — but with a real partner glowing at the center of her writer's mind. All the beautiful detail, all the muscular melody and immaculately placed acoustic production details (all those, ahem, strings -- she's still Taylor) in service of a mature celebration of the fact that love doesn't have to paint the entire world to change your life. One tiny thread of gold can be enough. —Jacob Ganz
"The Bigger Picture"
Released less than a month after George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police department, "The Bigger Picture" exists in that long tradition of great political rap. While the song lacks the ecstatic and joyfully rebellious pulse of "Fight the Power" or Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," it approaches the issues of racism and police brutality from a world-weary, but ultimately hopeful angle. Lil Baby delivers the song's lyrics at a quick and desperate clip: "They killin' us for no reason / Been goin' on for too long to get even / Throw us in cages like dogs and hyenas." Skillfully illustrating the confusion that comes along with trying to figure out how to make things better, Lil Baby resolves: "You can't fight fire with fire / I know, but at least we can turn up the flames some." Written in the midst of an uncertain and chaotic time, "The Bigger Picture" smolders with righteous indignation. —John Morrison (WXPN)