The 20 Best Songs of 2020
From apocalyptic cacophonies of sound to intimate chamber pop, musical responses to the chaos of 2020 were diverse – and unpredictable, with Taylor Swift going indie, disco resurging with a vengeance on some of the biggest pop albums, cutting political commentary coming from ex-Disney star Demi Lovato, and late-career triumphs from Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney. So in no particular order, here are my 20 favourites from 2020:
- Physical – Dua Lipa
It seems the 80s throwback craze that proliferated over the 2010s would not fade but intensify as we entered a new decade. Released way back 100 years ago in March, Dua Lipa’s sophomore album Future Nostalgia not only runs wild with the synth pop sound, but takes us further back down the nostalgia road, fusing disco with the cutting edge of modern pop and delivering intense, driving floor-fillers. ‘Physical’ is an electrifying earworm, boldly borrowing from Olivia Newton John’s hit to create a party song fit for an anxious world.
2. Come Give Me Love – First Aid Kit
Unashamedly warm-hearted, this sunny track, originally recorded by Ted Gärdestad, suits the Swedish country-folk duo First Aid Kit down to a T. Decluttering the song of its grandiose instrumentation, they complement the infectious melody with lush vocal harmony and tasteful touches of piano and strings.
3. Black Parade – Beyoncé
Beyoncé’s charity single, released on Juneteenth in the midst of the largest anti-racist demonstrations in history, is a celebration of blackness in all its forms. Flutes and horns join Beyoncé’s versatile voice as she pays homage to her African heritage in a song that hardly does the same thing twice. As witty and sharp a lyricist as ever, she spits out lines like ‘made a picket sign off your picket fence, take it as a warning’ and doesn’t mince words when calling for justice: ‘need peace and reparation for my people.’
4. Murder Most Foul – Bob Dylan
The thing you have to understand first about ‘Murder Most Foul’ is that it’s a 17 minute-long song about the assassination of JFK, sung by a 79 year-old who already sounded about that age when he was 21. If you’re still listening, you’ll probably like this one. It’s far from the most exciting tune on the list but well-worth listening to with the lyrics at hand. Over steady waves of piano, Dylan’s rugged drawl slides between transparency and obscurity as he reflects on the decades’ worth of bloodshed and music since Kennedy’s death.
5. Hardest to Love – The Weeknd
There’s not a lot of danger you didn’t hear the Weeknd this year, and while the Grammy’s may have snubbed the Canadian artist, his heady blend of 80s synths and the melancholy of today’s pop undoubtedly deserves its success. His hit ‘Blinding Lights’ speaks for itself: catchy and nostalgic, yet tinged with anxiety and urgency, it soundtracks 2020 perfectly. My pick however is the album track ‘Hardest to Love’ with its sad, dreamy beauty and poignant lyrics.
6. Coming to Get You Nowhere – This Is the Kit
‘Coming to Get You Nowhere’ is the rapturous second single released in the run-up to This Is the Kit’s fifth studio album, Off Off On, and it encapsulates all of the record’s vibrancy and warmth. Bringing in brass instruments to complement the band’s cool indie folk sound, this song feels richer, fuller and more purposeful than any previous release. Add Kate Stables’ sweet, airy vocals and the result is sublime.
7. Nothing at All – Perfume Genius
Perfume Genius filled his dynamic fifth album with deep, surging synths and heavy, echoing drumbeats, while indulging a talent for powerful, emotive song-writing. In ‘Nothing at All’ he delivers a dark, moody chorus while a shining, transcendent synth line dances overhead, like light breaking through steely storm clouds.
8. AUATC – Bon Iver
The second of two singles released by Bon Iver this year, AUATC, an acronym for ‘Ate Up All Their Cake’, is unlike anything Justin Vernon has previously composed. It abandons glitchy electronics for steady piano, fluttering pipes and, although the voices are heavily distorted, backing vocals from Jenny Lewis, Jenn Wasner and Bruce Springsteen. Incorporating James Taylor’s protest song ‘Shed A Little Light’, the lyrics take on capitalist greed and global inequality, while the melody, defiant and uplifting, evokes the joy of gospel hymns.
9. Money Can’t Buy – Frazey Ford
Just one of the many effortlessly melodic tracks on Canadian singer-songwriter Frazey Ford’s captivating third LP, U Kin B the Sun, ‘Money Can’t Buy’ is smooth, soulful and soothing, marrying a slick groove with Ford’s distinctive quivering vibrato to create a warm summer’s evening of a song.
10. a few words for the firing squad (radiation) – Run the Jewels
On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, American hip-hop duo Run the Jewels conclude their latest studio album with an apocalyptic closer. Killer Mike and El-P are on fire here, confessing their darkest memories with an honesty and urgency that makes the song’s dystopic title seem apt. Painfully personal and savagely political, there isn’t a single word out of place over these four verses and the wailing saxophone solo makes for a wild and tempestuous finale.
11. People I’ve Been Sad – Christine and the Queens
French musician Héloïse Letissier, or Christine and the Queens, crafts an enchanting soundscape, her modernised, manipulated vocals gliding above the warm glow of 80s synths as she delivers this heartfelt, confessional song.
12. The Adults Are Talking – The Strokes
Boasting multiple catchy riffs and an indefinable lust for life, ‘The Adults Are Talking’ is an infectious synth-rock track with a vibrant, colourful soundscape that kicks off The Strokes’ latest LP The New Abnormal with a shot of pure energy.
13. Can’t Fight – Lianne La Havas
British singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas‘s entrancing third album showcased a stylistic shift towards looser, more free-flowing song-writing. ‘Can’t Fight’ is one of the catchiest tunes on the record, combining the album’s bare, acoustic sound with a soulful melody.
14. my future – Billie Eilish
The soft, haunting beauty of ‘my future’ makes it stand out among Billie Eilish’s 2020 singles. Where the first verse is cloaked in a cool, nocturnal atmosphere, verse two introduces an easy drumbeat and featherweight backing vocals, swinging into a gentle groove. But perhaps the biggest surprise about this track is the heart-warming optimism with which the teenage star, known for revelling in disturbing imagery, looks forward, singing ‘I’m in love with my future, can’t wait to meet her.’
15. This Love Isn’t Crazy – Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen strikes gold once again with another fresh, uplifting dance pop gem. I’ll leave it at that.
16. Song for Orphans – Bruce Springsteen
The only song on this list written in 1971, ‘Song for Orphans’ is the Boss at his best, reunited with the E-Street Band and bellowing out an anthem for America’s doomed youth. Calling up echoes of the glory days of rock n roll while evoking a wistful, reflective maturity, ‘Song for Orphans’ is the perfect collision of past and present.
17. peace – Taylor Swift
Buried deep in the track list of Taylor Swift’s first of two acclaimed albums of 2020, Folklore, ‘peace’ may not initially stand out. But over time, the piercing beauty of this sincere, fragile love song shines through. Swift moves away from up-tempo, enraptured confessions of love, instead earnestly questioning ‘would it be enough if I could never give you peace?’. Her achingly heartfelt lyricism is backed by a pristine, spacey instrumental with celestial scatterings of piano. If you want to understand the hype around Swift’s electric folk transformation, there’s no better place to start.
18. Goodbye to All That – Sufjan Stevens
Awash with rich vocal harmony and propelled by a coarse, industrial beat, ‘Goodbye to All That’ is warm, deep and spiritual. Stevens evokes both the solemnity and joy of church hymns to create a soaring melody that is simultaneously uplifting and wistful.
19. I Know the End – Phoebe Bridgers
If your response to this past year was mostly just ‘AAAGGHHH’, then you’ll probably appreciate this one. Proving that Phoebe Bridgers’ Halloween-y aesthetic is more than just a gimmick, what begins as a serene ballad ends with actual screaming. Building to its incendiary climax, horns, strings, a trumpet and more join Bridgers, before the screams bring in a dystopian cacophony. The drama Bridgers achieves on this track is astounding, distilling fear, anger and exhilaration into a monumental piece of music that encapsulates a feeling of being right on the edge of something that could either be catastrophic or magnificent.
20. Good News – Mac Miller
‘Good news, good news, good news, that’s all they wanna hear’ sings Mac Miller on this perfect, understated single from his posthumous album Circles. The song is intimate and honest, accounting Miller’s battle with mental illness and the persistent pressure to appear cheerful. Its vulnerability and quiet, steady faith make it one of the most resonant and affecting tracks of the year.