These are the songs that I felt defined this year. Each of them provided their own sort of coping mechanism that only music can provide, especially in such unforgiving times.
Originally published on 12/30/20.
20. Touché Amoré – “Come Heroine”
The renowned emo-punk outfit returned in 2020 with Lament, an overall strong album that served as yet another helping of emotionally heavy rock music. However, “Come Heroine” is the album’s finest moment, in my opinion. It’s a truly unforgiving opener that wastes no time in loudly setting the tone for the album. Lead vocalist Jeremy Bolm unleashes his distinctive screams and howls throughout the track; raw emotion drips from every single word he utters, yet again proving why he’s one of the genre’s greatest vocalists working today. His bandmates provide an exceptional musical backdrop, too, seamlessly shifting between subdued buildups and blaring, blistering sections of melodic catharsis. Definitely one of the year’s most memorable opening tracks, and a gripping reminder that this band isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
19. Bartees Strange – “Boomer”
Underground artist Bartees Strange has a knack for mixing rap, rock, and whatever else strikes his fancy, and “Boomer” is a prime example of that. A fast-paced indie rocker, the song is a wondrous thrill from start to finish. Most of the track’s hip-hop influences show up during the verses, which see Strange taking on a rapped-sung cadence. Lyrically, he spills his guts about his street life and personal shortcomings, contrasting powerfully with the joyful instrumentation. Strange truly exhibits his vocal chops on the hook, which soars with all the emotion and conviction of a Tunde Adebimpe, and is destined to be cathartically bellowed by hundreds at a live concert. Bartees Strange’s album Live Forever is a notable debut, but “Boomer” is one of the tracks that truly cements him as an artist to watch.
18. clipping. – “’96 Neve Campbell”
clipping.’s magnificent new album Visions of Bodies Being Burned is full of standout tracks, but “’96 Neve Campbell” just might be the strongest. It’s arguably the group’s most simple yet effective mix of hip-hop and horror to date. The beat has a nasty, bassy gangsta-rap shuffle to it that meshes perfectly with the creepy atmospheres and bizarre sound effects throughout (those door-pounding samples and weird descending piano hits both give me chills every time I hear them). The hook is catchy, snappy, and memorable, and is likely to stick in your head for quite some time. Meanwhile, emcees Cam and China absolutely murder their verses; each one brings her own individual flow to the song, yet both women just ooze with confidence as they unleash a seemingly endless supply of quotable bars. clipping. has always had a reputation for bringing talented yet virtually unknown artists along for the ride, and “’96 Neve Campbell” is one of the best examples yet. Frankly, it ought to be considered a gateway song for potential new fans of the group; it showcases their eminent creativity without being a particularly rough or abrasive listen.
17. RMR – “Rascal”
This is, without a doubt, the weirdest song to go viral in 2020. It’s basically a cover of the ubiquitous country tune “Bless the Broken Road,” except the lyrics have been changed to reflect a trap lifestyle. And it’s all sung over nothing but a piano. On paper, there is absolutely no way this should work; I myself was thoroughly perplexed upon the first handful of listens. Yet it doesn’t take long for this track to burrow itself into your brain, and before you know it, you’re passionately lip-syncing “AND E-VE-RYYY SLEEEEEP-LEEEEESS NIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT” by yourself in the mirror. Sadly, RMR – who has managed to remain anonymous – more or less failed to effectively capitalize on the winning weirdness of “Rascal,” releasing a rather underwhelming EP not long afterwards. Still, his breakout track is one of 2020’s most bizarrely addictive songs, and adds a much-needed newness to the already tired country rap scene.
16. Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats – “DIET_”
It was difficult for me to pick my favorite track off Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats’ brief but superb collaborative project UNLOCKED, but I ultimately settled on this one. “DIET_” – yes, that underscore is supposed to be there – is the apex of the two artists’ alliance. Both parties bring their A-game on this track. Curry shows an even higher range of vocal intensity here than usual; in the first verse alone his voice slowly evolves from a laid-back, laconic delivery to his signature powerful snarl. His lyrics are as impressive as ever, too, presenting a smattering of quotably braggadocious lines in a short amount of time. Meanwhile Beats’ instrumental is a rhythmically sparse yet hard-hitting marvel. Throughout, a truly nasty bass rumble punctuates every kick and a hard-to-place percussion sample adds the perfect amount of weirdness to it all. It all comes together to make a marvelous piece of hardcore hip-hop, and the most convincing argument for a second team-up in the future.
15. Jessie Ware – “In Your Eyes”
No, it’s not a Peter Gabriel cover, but it’s just as good if not better. Jessie Ware’s “In Your Eyes” is an exquisite synthpop ballad that sends chills down the spine without fail. With a looping, morphing synth bassline providing the song’s foundation, Ware muses about the pain of unrequited love. Her lyricism is simply magnificent, as well as her singing; she explores a noticeably wider range of emotions and vocal intensity here than many of the other tracks on the excellent What’s Your Pleasure?. The production is detailed, immaculate, and constantly evolving, synthesizers and artificial percussion fitting snugly with the breathtaking string sections. The hushed hook is utterly spellbinding, too; it could very well be the album’s quintessential moment. Why this one wasn’t officially released as a single is beyond me, frankly – though it did get a music video.
14. Shygirl – “FREAK”
Yeah, the cover art is kind of icky. But one listen to “FREAK,” and you’ll be wondering if there’s a more fitting image to accompany it. British singer-songwriter Shygirl’s latest EP ALIAS is another short and not-at-all-sweet helping of grimy club bangers, and single “FREAK” might be the grimiest. Make no mistake: This is an absolutely filthy track, both lyrically and sonically. Shygirl is no stranger to sex raps, but producer Sega Bodega’s particularly nasty beat amplifies the ribald imagery even more than usual. The instrumental is an inventive, danceable combination of hip-house and deconstructed club that generates the image of bizarre alien bodies gyrating in an intergalactic nightclub somewhere well outside the Milky Way, strobe lights flashing constantly. The chemistry between Bodega’s hyper-weird production and Shygirl’s risqué delivery is undeniable; it’s no wonder they’ve collaborated so much over the past couple of years.
13. Rina Sawayama – “Bad Friend”
Like much of the rest of Rina Sawayama’s outstanding debut album SAWAYAMA, “Bad Friend” is a prime example of the singer-songwriter’s talent. Specifically, it showcases her penchant for taking tired genres and sounds and making them ring true again. “Bad Friend” manages to take the moody-white-girl-club-pop-ballad-singalong sound that permeated the airwaves a couple of years ago and pulls a great deal of genuine emotion out of it. Over a fantastically catchy pop instrumental that was primarily produced by the artist herself, Sawayama sings simple but effective lyrics about the ugly dissolution of a friendship and the resulting blame she holds for herself. It may sound like a soulless, generic chart-topper on paper; however, what truly makes this work is not just the creative beat, but Sawayama’s gorgeous vocal performance and ear for memorable melodies. (The hook will get stuck in your head for days on end. Believe me.) “Bad Friend” is far more than just #relatable pop; it’s among the most emotionally resonant songs of 2020.
12. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”
Behold, the funniest song of 2020. Bizarre, cheeky humor is nothing new for singer-songwriter and bass wizard Thundercat, but “Dragonball Durag” is his most amusing track yet. Throughout the song, Thundercat desperately tries to court a woman by showing off his anime headgear; judging by the hilarious music video, he is pitifully unsuccessful. (One particularly absurd line that will always stick out to me: “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good.”) It helps that the music itself is simply excellent; Thundercat’s usual brand of psychedelic funk is prevalent here, his masterful bass playing remaining a staple of his work. The chord progression also manages to be both musically complicated and wonderfully captivating, an undeniably impressive feat. Through ear-grabbing vocal melodies, creative instrumentation, and comical lyrics, Thundercat came through with one of the most wry, uproarious, and genuinely fun songs of the year.
11. Charli XCX – “forever”
It’s frankly astounding how Charli XCX just keeps consistently making some of modern music’s most forward-thinking pop. “forever,” the first single from her quarantine-born album how i’m feeling now, is yet another helping of wonderfully creative and catchy music from the Brit. The songwriting and lyricism are top-notch; the lyrics reflect a deep-rooted love for someone, one that’s going to stay strong even if the relationship ends. The production from A.G. Cook and BJ Burton is excellent, as well; heavily distorted synths, punchy 808s, and sweeping white noise are used to maximum effect, creating a beat that is as catchy as it is compelling. It’s a superb, genuinely affecting chunk of pop music that deserves to be on everyone’s quarantine playlist.
10. HAIM – “Don’t Wanna”
Seriously, how good is this track? The sisterly trio’s magnificent third album Women in Music Pt. III has no shortage of wonderful pop tunes, but “Don’t Wanna” stands out as arguably their best song to date. The vocal chemistry between Danielle, Este, and Alana is on full display here, and the lyrics are simple and easy to remember without devolving into underwritten schlock. The instrumental is marvelously sunny and produced to perfection, and the hook is one of the catchiest you’ll find in all of 2020. “Don’t Wanna” is just a fantastic piece of pop music that everyone should listen to. Not much more to say here, really.
9. Mac Miller – “Good News”
It’s honestly hard to believe it’s already been two years since Mac Miller left this world. Upon the massively talented rap icon’s tragic death at 26, he was in the process of crafting his next album, Circles; famed composer Jon Brion spent the next year finishing the album for him. “Good News” serves as the centerpiece of Circles; for nearly six minutes, Miller muses on his emotional state and his well-documented struggles with maintaining it.
The lyrics on “Good News” are some of the best Miller ever wrote in his entire career, delivering one quietly devastating line after another. Even the simpler sentiments pack a serious blow: “Why can’t it just be easy? / Why does everybody need me to stay?” “I’m so tired of being so tired.” “I hate the feeling when you’re high but you’re underneath the ceiling.” Near the end, however, Miller finally decides that “it ain’t that bad,” adding a certain mellow happiness to counteract the depressive themes. Meanwhile, the instrumentation is rich, pleasant, and chill-inducing. Soft guitar plucks, gentle bass, subtle xylophones, and quiet drums create the perfect soundscape for Miller’s understated singing. Despite never once rising above a moderate volume or venturing outside of its chord progression, it never grows tiring to listen to; if anything, it gets more powerful as it goes along.
I truly can’t remember the last time I heard a song that more perfectly fit the definition of “bittersweet.” Mac Miller’s “Good News” is a beautiful, devastating piece of music, one whose emotional palette is genuinely difficult to put into words. It’s a masterpiece of a song made exponentially more affecting following the death of the genius behind it. Listening to this song conjures the image of Miller reclining on a cloud above his millions of mourning fans and loved ones, sad over their pain of losing him but happy to finally be at peace.
8. Perfume Genius – “Nothing at All”
“Nothing at All” is the best track on Perfume Genius’ excellent new album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. This is not an easy statement to make, yet it is the correct one. The song is a stunningly executed baroque pop marvel, sporting one of the most amazing musical beds Mike Hadreas has ever sung over. For most of the song, the instrumentation stays slightly subdued yet expansive and gorgeous as Hadreas croons about being an emotional rock for a significant other. The soaring woodwinds after each hook create possibly the finest moments on the entire record, a truly freeing and beautiful motif that works wonders. And on the final hook, when the percussion finally explodes into a crisp rhythm, the song instantly rockets into the stratosphere, a cathartic unleashing of all the emotion that had built up over the last three minutes. “Nothing at All” is a marvelous and creative wonder that ought to go down as one of the best Perfume Genius songs ever, and one of the greatest of this year.
7. Christine and the Queens – “People, I’ve been sad”
If any one song in 2020 truly understood the power of “less is more,” “People, I’ve been sad” would be my pick. Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier, better known as Christine and the Queens, has repeatedly proven to be one of the most talented synthpop artists out there, and this track just might be the best example yet. Written, performed, and produced almost entirely by the artist herself, “People, I’ve been sad” is a stunningly beautiful exploration of (what else?) sadness. On the surface, the title might seem too on-the-nose to the casual listener; however, through Letissier’s exceptional singing and songwriting abilities, what would normally seem like an empty platitude is given a vast ocean of genuine emotional potency.
The song also includes a bridge sung entirely in Letissier’s native French; when translated to English, it fully reveals itself to be rife with devastating yet heart-wrenchingly beautiful imagery, resulting in one of my favorite lyrical passages of 2020. (Look it up for yourself; it’s absolutely gorgeous.) And the minimal instrumental is no less stunning, with a subtly lurching beat, thick bass, gorgeous synth chords and, eventually, gentle string sections. Tellingly, the song never reaches a musical resolution, adding to the already high emotional uncertainty prevalent throughout. All of this results in one of 2020’s most beautiful songs; I implore you to give it a listen if you haven’t already.
6. Run the Jewels – “JU$T (feat. Pharrell Williams & Zack de la Rocha)”
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the perfection of Run the Jewels’ timing for the release of RTJ4 cannot possibly be stressed enough. The coincidental relationship of some of its lyrics to the murder of George Floyd, and the fact the album was released two days early because of that event, are already well-documented. Standout track “JU$T,” though, would only be slightly less powerful if Derek Chauvin had turned out to have anything resembling a conscience. In typical Run the Jewels fashion, the track mercilessly eviscerates the still-present racism all over America, yet again providing the musical catalyst we need. The minimal yet throttling beat and the undeniable chemistry between the track’s four emcees are major highlights, as well. I yearn for the day when the pandemic finally blows over and I’ll have the chance to repeatedly scream “LOOK AT ALL THESE SLAVE MASTERS POSING ON YOUR DOLLAR” amongst hundreds of sweat-drenched, unruly fans.
5. Dogleg – “Ender”
It seems fitting that the best punk album of the year ends with the best punk song of the year. Dogleg’s Melee has stood out since its March release as a strong, immediate statement within the genre, but “Ender” has stuck out to me personally as one of the year’s most affecting pieces of music. For six minutes and change, frontman Alex Stoitsiadis and his bandmates deliver a dynamic, ever-changing, and thrilling tearjerker of a song to close out their debut album. “Ender” takes the emotion that had already been exploding all over the previous songs and somehow turns it up to 11. Blistering, uncompromising punk grooves give way to tempo changes and acoustic guitar breakdowns, all while Stoitsiadis shreds his larynx like cheese for the sake of pure catharsis.
The final two minutes of “Ender” are among the best I heard all year. After a short, gentle section of guitar strumming, the song totally explodes into maximum overdrive, massive riffs and pounding drums blowing the listener away. Before long, all the band members – with help from friends – unleash a wordless vocal riff that effectively purges all the emotion that built up over the previous half-hour. Finally, the band drops out completely to make way for a tremendous string section that reprises the final chord progression of the song, acting as the aftermath of a devastating storm. It’s a genuine lump-in-the-throat moment that could not have ended Melee better, and cements “Ender” as an emo-punk masterpiece.
4. Yves Tumor – “Gospel for a New Century”
Though I sadly haven’t been fully impressed with an Yves Tumor album thus far, I simply cannot deny the wild creativity Sean Bowie (no relation) consistently brings to the table. Heaven to a Tortured Mind may be somewhat uneven, but “Gospel for a New Century” is a flawless opening track. There’s a plethora of elements here that work together to make a god-tier experimental rock song: the chopped-up horn section samples, the pounding drums, the spider-like bassline, the crunching guitars, and the almost sneering baritone vocals. It also boasts one of the year’s greatest refrains, and I dare you to not gleefully turn up the volume when it comes around (“THIS AIN’T BY DESIIIIIIIGN, GIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRL” is one of my favorite vocal moments of 2020, bar none). And the way it all comes to an abrupt halt on that final snare hit? Chills down the spine. This is a song that’s just as likely to soundtrack a rain-drenched fight scene as it is a grotesque art installation; if that doesn’t convince you to listen to it, I don’t know what will.
3. Moses Sumney – “Cut Me”
Moses Sumney is one of the most talented singer-songwriters working today. Period. And if you need proof, look no further than “Cut Me,” the first true song on Sumney’s spectacular double album græ. It’s basically four minutes and ten seconds of this GIF on loop. There are countless moments in this song, whether vocally, instrumentally, lyrically, or a mix of the three, that are simply magnifique. This is one of those songs that gives you gleeful chills no matter how many times you hear it.
“Cut Me” is, above all else, a masterful exercise in restraint; for nearly the whole song, the instrumentation never rises above its beautifully subdued groove. This allows for Sumney’s incredible vocals to fully take center stage as he sings lyrics about masochism, his soaring falsetto sounding far more triumphant than vulnerable. His full vocal range is on full display on “Cut Me,” as well, his voice gliding across numerous octaves like it was nothing. And that moment in the bridge when he ascends to that high note? See the link above. Finally, in the last 40 seconds, the instrumentation erupts into a gorgeous crescendo, providing a wonderfully satisfying finale. While græ is a wonderful album throughout, Sumney truly saved the best for first on this one; it’s a perfect table setter for the rest of the record.
2. Fiona Apple – “I Want You to Love Me”
Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an absolute marvel of an album (not exactly uncommon knowledge at this point), and it kicks off with the beautiful and utterly thrilling “I Want You to Love Me.” The song (and thus the album) begins with an amusing curveball of sorts: there’s an incredibly cheap-sounding and rickety MIDI sequence that serves as a strange palate cleanser before Apple’s piano comes in, playing a strange but gorgeous series of chords. Right off the bat, she calmly addresses her near eight-year absence from the spotlight and cleverly works it into the theme of the song: “I’ve waited many years / Every print I left along the track has led me here.” As the song continues, Apple’s vocals become more and more passionate, as does her piano playing, and before long a double bass has joined the mix, adding an essential foundation to the track.
The song contains one of my favorite musical moments of 2020, coming in during the bridge. Apple’s voice becomes even more full of energy, the instrumentation now suddenly swelling to include what sounds like an incredibly low-pitched cello. After some more chill-inducing vocals that could not be more heartfelt, the moment happens. Apple sings these words: “And I know that you know that you got the potential to pick me up / And I want you to use it / Blast the music / Bang it, bite it, bruise it.” The words “bang,” “bite,” and “bruise” are all punctuated by a powerful drum hit, along with Apple seemingly slamming her fingers down on the piano keys as hard as she can. It’s an exhilarating moment that, for full effect, requires the listener to pound their fist on the nearest solid surface in time with the percussive blasts.
“I Want You to Love Me” is a case study in how to start an album. It perfectly sets the tone for the rest of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, instantly and firmly establishing itself as a force of nature. The vocals, the instrumentation, the lyrics, and the songwriting are all incredible, similarly to the vast majority of the following 48 minutes. It sends a clear and immediate message to the listener: Fiona Apple is back, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
1. Phoebe Bridgers – “I Know the End”
The best song of 2020 is also its finest musical depiction. Rising indie darling Phoebe Bridgers released one of the year’s greatest albums, Punisher, an emotional rollercoaster of a record that I can’t recommend enough. It’s a gorgeous experience filled with gentle vocals, subtle textures, and excellent songwriting. When closing track “I Know the End” begins, it sounds just like most of the other songs on the album: quiet, vulnerable, and beautiful. For two minutes, Bridgers softly and cryptically conjures up apocalyptic imagery over a gentle guitar, almost luring the listener into a false sense of security. But then, a shift: the tempo speeds up as the instrumentation builds and builds, the vocals becoming more intense and the lyrics more vivid. The backdrop finally reaches maximum volume as the album’s numerous collaborators gather together to sing, simply and repeatedly, “the end is here.” Pounding drums, soaring trumpets, and distorted guitars fall all around them before they collectively yell, briefly burying everything else in the mix.
But that’s not even the song’s most powerful moment. Oh, no. After a few measures of loud, bombastic instrumentation, Bridgers lets out a single, primal scream. For fifteen seconds straight, every single ounce of emotion that had been building up over the album’s previous 40 minutes is purged in the most beautifully devastating way possible. For fifteen seconds straight, every last listener is given a moment of pure, unadulterated catharsis, letting them release all the pain, confusion, and frustration that has permeated this traumatic year. It’s the defining musical moment of 2020, one that has made me completely lose it and burst into tears on at least one occasion.
“I Know the End” isn’t just the best song of 2020; it is its ultimate musical encapsulation. It’s a powerful, overwhelming piece of music that everyone should experience. Though it was recorded the previous year, I genuinely believe Bridgers has unwittingly crafted the definitive anthem for the worst year most of us have ever lived through, and ought to go down as such. Godspeed, Phoebe Bridgers. Godspeed.
Listen to all of these songs on Apple Music or Spotify below.