In a maddening year of canceled plans, virtual concerts, charity livestreams and quarantine memes on TikTok, it’s a comforting thing — maybe the last comforting thing — to know that a great song can still pull you through it all.
The global mood may have darkened in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice and an election that literally wouldn’t stop. But we still had DaBaby. And Taylor Swift. And Haim and Tame Impala and Megan Thee Stallion and Bruce Springsteen and many other artists who blessed us with excellent new music.
Perhaps it’s fitting that in a year that refused to behave, two of the biggest and best singles — the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights and Roddy Ricch’s The Box — actually came out in 2019, and are thus ineligible for this list. Sorry, but the rules are the rules, even in 2020.
But we found plenty of other music that kept our hopes alive during lockdown. Here are our top 30 songs of 2020. As always, we’re limiting ourselves to one song per artist — call it the Drake Rule — in order to get a nice mix. Let’s count ‘em down.
30. Bad Bunny, Jowell and Randy, Nengo Flow, Safaera: Bad Bunny’s rise to pop’s upper echelon transcended language barriers throughout 2020. Safaera almost transcended reggaeton itself, flipping and bending its beat throughout its five-minute run time until the Puerto Rican rapper and his pals had seemingly crammed half a dozen songs into one.
29. Frances Quinlan, Your Reply: Vibes of the Kinks and Belle and Sebastian are strong on this single by the Hop Along singer, whose delicate warble hops deftly along, around and throughout pleasantly twee pianos and strummy guitars.
28. Jhene Aiko and Nas, 10k Hours: Aiko’s lighter-than-air voice floats over airy, jazzy pianos, as she and Nas reflect on the Gladwellian time they spent learning from past relationships gone wrong.
27. John Prine, I Remember Everything: The last song Prine ever recorded proved to be a moving epilogue following his death from complications of COVID-19 in April. Yet another sad reminder of the good things that we lost in 2020.
26. Beabadoobee, Care: An alt-rock pastiche that sounds like it took years of digging through ’90s bins at used-CD stores to write, Care was the crunchy, crashy centerpiece of Beabadoobee’s charmingly nostalgic album Fake It Flowers.
25. Doja Cat and Nicki Minaj, Say So: The song was released last year, but it took an updated remix featuring Minaj to give it a jolt of attitude and make it a No. 1 hit. Disco this glittery doesn’t know how to die.
24. The Killers, Caution: A single called Caution dropping near the outset of a global pandemic? A bit on the nose, but it worked. The Vegas rockers had to postpone plans for a European stadium tour, but adding another driving alt-rock hit to their arsenal wasn’t a bad consolation prize.
23. Tame Impala, Breathe Deeper: This was the year Tame Impala was supposed to headline every festival and play American arenas in support of their album The Slow Rush. Alas, that rush was, um, slowed due to the coronavirus. But Breathe Deeper is poised for a long life on psychedelic dance-rock playlists for years to come.
22. Taylor Swift, Betty: The stripped-down heart of a stripped-down album, Betty is a love story-song in the style of Dylan filtered through ’90s alt-pop. Betty launched some discourse about its possible LGBTQ themes, which speaks in a broad sense to its appeal: Despite sounding so different from everything Swift has done lately, it’s so alluring from so many angles that it might go down as one of her fans’ favorite songs.
21. Katy Perry, Daisies: It’s honestly impressive, Perry’s commitment of late to swaddling herself in studio production in service of the hugest possible pop sound. Perry’s voice strains for the highs that Daisies demands, but when she hits them, you feel it.
20. Faye Webster, Better Distractions: The first note echoes for seconds, but it might as well be hours. Webster’s style of stoned Southern soul, all blissed-out guitars and reverb for days, takes its time to blossom, but blossom it eventually does.
19. Tyler Childers, Long Violent History: No one asked for the Kentucky country upstart’s take on race relations in America — which, weirdly, makes it all the more worth listening to. Childers digs in on white privilege and Southern hypocrisy, pleading with listeners just to empathize: “Could you imagine just constantly worrying, kicking and fighting and begging to breathe?”
18. Cam, Classic: It’s not quite pop, it’s not quite country, it’s not quite bluegrass. It’s a lot Taylor Swift, though, and despite all the acoustic strumming, maybe even a little punk. Cam seems less interested in country stardom than most, and it’s enabled her to create some of the most distinct and, well, classic country songs of recent years.
17. The 1975, What Should I Say: Yes, singer Matty Healy can be a bit much. What Should I Say solves this problem by warping Healy’s voice beyond recognition, yielding an icy electropop banger that sounds nothing like the 1975 — proof that the still-young British band is still finding new ways to evolve.
16. Margo Price, Twinkle Twinkle: Price’s twang can’t be tamed, but the flaming distortion and well-deep reverb throughout Twinkle Twinkle gives it a go. In the end, Price’s snarling swirl of alt-rock and alt-country gets it done.
15. Polo G and Juice WRLD, Flex: Polo G called his shot with The Goat, one of the year’s strongest hip-hop albums. But it was the evocative voice of the late Juice WRLD — and the looping acoustic riff that twirled all around it — that elevated Flex to the next level.
14. Yumi Zouma, Lonely After: Driving synth-pop with dreamy, whisper-gentle vocals, Lonely After is a standout on Zouma’s warmly enveloping Truth or Consequences. No doubt it’s helped their fellow New Zealanders weather the pandemic together.
13. Haim, Don’t Wanna: Haim know their way around a hook; this much has long been self-evident. Even a song as deceptively simple as Don’t Wanna does more with a bass line, a few well-placed guitar riffs and an airy arrangement than a lot of bands could with Spector’s Wall of Sound.
12. Carly Rae Jepsen, Me and the Boys in the Band: Only CRJ could drop a new single on YouTube and nowhere else, and have it be such an earworm. Recorded and filmed in quarantine, the relatively minimalist, wistful ode to life on the road is simple, shimmery and likable as all get out. You won’t find it on Spotify, but seek it out to put a smile on your face.
11. 24kGoldn and Iann Dior, Mood: No one needed to ask why we were all in a mood in 2020, and yet 24kGoldn did, and the resulting song shot through the stratosphere. A slick guitar hook that helped the song juke between pop, rap and alternative rock formats only broadened its audience.
10. Phoebe Bridgers, Kyoto: You can crisscross the world playing rock ‘n’ roll music, but you can’t outrun the pain of the past. On Kyoto, as in so many other songs, Bridgers speaks lived-in truths via snapshots of everyday life, this time with some well-placed horns in the mix.
9. Katie Pruitt, Expectations: Strong notes of Stevie Nicks, modernized via Kathleen Edwards or Rilo Kiley. Atlanta area singer-guitarist Pruitt starts out with solid but tempered riffs, but only truly lets her voice run wild toward the end. It’s worth the wait.
8. Morgan Wallen, 7 Summers: Forget the mullet and SNL controversy. Don’t let the haters call 7 Summers soft-rock bro-country. It’s pure and glorious yacht rock — the best of all yacht genres! — and it deserves a tip of the sailor’s cap and a toast of Coke and Southern Comfort tonight, this weekend and seven summers from now.
7. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Ghosts: This was it, the song that made me miss live music more than any other. Nearly six minutes on the album, you can easily imagine the E Streeters firing this ode to a fallen friend into a 10-minute live barn burner, with Bruce bellowing “I’m aliiiive!” at the top of his lungs. We may not appreciate how epic a song this really is until they tour again.
6. Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé, Savage (Remix): It took an icon like Beyoncé to frame and augment Meg’s un-lasso-able personality in the baddest, swaggiest way. It’s not every remix that turns out better than the original, but this one undoubtedly did.
5. Wifisfuneral and Coi Leray, Lost in Time: The mood: Headphones cranked at 3 a.m., the room lit by the glow of a laptop, a few things going right but a whole lot more left to figure out. If the Weeknd hadn’t become a pop star, this is the misanthropic midnight vibe he might still be living in.
4. Fiona Apple, Shameika: Unhinged in the best sense of the word, a careening piano and rat-a-tat lyrics and percussion, clenching and uncoiling as Apple relives an uncomfortable time in her youth, when an acquaintance gave her words to live by. Shameika said she had potential, and Shameika was 100 percent right.
3. DaBaby and Roddy Ricch, Rockstar: Cheers to DaBaby for infusing new-school hip-hop with a jolly, jiggly bounce — and to Roddy Ricch for giving it melodic sweep. And cheers to them both for twisting the ol’ “rock stars as cowboys” cliche to present themselves as true sonic gods on the streets.
2. Waxahatchee, Fire: In a proper world, indie rocker Katie Crutchfield and Waxahatchee would get credit for creating the year’s best country song. Road trips through West Memphis, doubt and redemption and learning to live with yourself at the end of it all — there’s a bit of Springsteen and a lot of soul in there, too, but the honesty at its core is pure country.
1. Terrace Martin, Denzel Curry, Kamasi Washington, G Perico and Daylyt, Pig Feet: The gunshot salvo, chopping copter blades and wailing eyewitnesses place you right square in the center of George Floyd’s America circa June 2020. Jazz and hip-hop maestro Martin leads the ring, drawing searing sax licks from Washington and rampaging, purposeful verses from Daylyt and Curry (who it can no longer be argued isn’t one of America’s best rappers). It’s far from the first rap song to address racial injustice, but at a time when the topic dominated the national discourse, it felt as blistering as any before it — like an angrier, more urgent version of Jay-Z’s 99 Problems. Was it a big hit? Of course not. But put it in the time capsule anyway. This was the sound of 2020.