The year’s best in music from the likes of Megan Thee Stallion, Ichiko Aoba, Rina Sawayama, and so many more.
25. “Guilty Conscience”- 070 Shake
While 070 Shake may not have reached the heights of her amazing vocal performance from 2018’s “Ghost Town,” her most recent album proved her pop sensibilities above all else. This track in particular is a lovely blend of throwback pop styles with a hypnotic instrumental courtesy of Mike Dean. It fits nicely with the themes of the album, but stands on its own as an immensely enjoyable solo piece.
24. “The Box”- Roddy Rich
Infectious as all hell and for a time completely inescapable. “The Box,” while at times derivative is a creative spin on a typical formula. Roddy Rich never stuck out to me in a lineup of rappers trying to imitate Young Thug, but tracks like this have changed that. There was a time this year when the “ee er” vocal line played incessantly, and who could forget the desperation in Justin Beiber’s marketing because he couldn’t topple “The Box”.
23. “NO MORE CAKE”- CHAI
CHAI isn’t out to recreate the wheel, but they thrive in their own style of punk by being catchy and cute. The foursome is already carving out a place for themselves in a historic scene. “NO MORE CAKE” is without a doubt some of their best material to date. Distorted bass lines and horn sections give way to stunning synthesizers, while the group harmonizes a near perfect chorus. Guitar solos have become a bit of a dying art form, but the one that turns up on the bridge here is an absolute treat to the ears.
22. “America”- Sufjan Stevens
Released on July 4th, “America” is Sufjan Stevens’s warning from beyond the grave. His incessant chants of “don’t do to me what you did to America” rattled me when I first heard it and still do to this day. The track incorporates several different genres, from electronic sections to long ambient passages across 12 minutes of run time. Its long, yes, but Sufjan’s conviction is palpable and that makes it worth every minute.
21. “WAP”- Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion
The shared experience of 2020 meant the return of monoculture. While we were all cooped up everyone became a little closer. Animal Crossing, Tiger King, whipped coffee, moments where we all collectively could not avert our eyes. “WAP” felt like another one of these moments. Everyone needs an opinion on “WAP”. Mine is that its a great song. The skeletal beat gives Cardi B, and especially Megan Thee Stallion, a chance to really shine.
20. “Gimme Love”- Joji
Part one of “Gimme Love,” the “gimme love” part, if you will, is a little too forward. But where the first half lacks in emotional punch, the second makes up for it in spades with swinging string sections and gorgeous vocal harmonies. “Gimme Love” is Joji at his best, we don’t get to see that as often as I would like so everytime it happens is a treat.
19. “Break My Heart”- Dua Lipa
Truthfully, I am a little mixed on Dua Lipa. Did I love Future Nostalgia? Not really, but I am a pop-head at the end of the day; and I cannot deny that “Break My Heart” is a really, really good pop song. It captures everything I want in a pop song, a sing-along chorus, a danceable beat, and a melody that rattles around in my brain for days.
18. “Désolé”- Gorillaz & Fatoumata Diawara
Gorillaz released so many amazing singles this year. I wanted to limit this list to one inclusion per artist, and it pains me to leave off so many great ones from Song Machine. Ultimately, I feel “Désolé” is the best, or at least close to it. Everything about this song is finely tuned to perfection. The structure is perfect, the production is excellent, literally everything goes right, and Gorillaz proves yet again how they can pull the best out of their collaborators.
17. “Walking In The Snow”- Run The Jewels
El-P plus Killer Mike always works. RTJ 4 felt like the group was really returning to form and firing on all cylinders. The release was timely as hell too, with this track in particular becoming a bit of an anthem for the cultural state of America in 2020. Given everything happening around the release of this album, “Walking In The Snow” leapt out to me the most because of how biting the lyrics are and how much conviction is in Killer Mike’s delivery.
16. “Weird Fishes”- Lianne La Havas
2020 was the year of the cover for music, and no one did it quite as well as Lianne La Havas. Taking one of the best Radiohead songs and flipping it for your own is ambitious, to say the least. For Lianne to do this one as well as she did is mind- blowingly impressive. On top of that her emotional delivery brings a perspective to the song that not even Thom Yorke could quite reach.
15. “What’s Your Pleasure”- Jessie Ware
If Jessie Ware’s most recent album is a love letter to disco, then the title track “What’s Your Pleasure” is the the kiss that seals the envelope. It is no reinvention of the disco formula, merely a modern retooling of it, bolstered by Jessie’s intimate songwriting. All the infectious qualities of great pop songs turn up here, but nothing feels by the numbers. It is a wholly unique take on the genre, even if it has historical roots.
14. “Cosmonauts”- Fiona Apple
So much praise has been heaped on Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters and for good reason. “Shameika” and “I Want You To Love Me” have topped plenty of year end lists already. But all the praise seems to completely ignore what I found to be the best track of all, “Cosmonauts”. I am a sucker for any song that climaxes, and man does this one climax. Fiona’s vocals take center stage as the track progresses from a scattered drum loop to an enormous, cacophonous conclusion.
13. “Something to Rap About”- Freddie Gibbs, The Alchemist, and Tyler, The Creator
At times, The Alchemist’s simple looped style of production grows tired on me. On tracks like “Something to Rap About” this is far from the case. Freddie Gibbs opening verse and Tyler’s one-take closer are so good that it keeps the simple loop fresh for nearly five uninterrupted minutes.
12. “Ringtone (remix)”- 100 Gecs, Charli XCX, Sarah Bonito, and Rico Nasty
When I first heard the rumor behind the “Ringtone” remix I did not think it was possible to get this many dominant artists on one song with good results. I was wrong. Charli XCX kills it on the chorus, Rico Nasty is uncharacteristically melodic, and Sarah Bonito calls back to the KKB days of old with cute rapping and ambient sound effects. Fantano-core jokes aside, this is a legitimately good song that balances so many unique voices with ease.
11. “It’s Bugsnax!”- Kero Kero Bonito
Kero Kero Bonito has long since departed from their patented brand of sugary sweet j-pop. That’s why returning to the sound after all these years is so satisfying, even the cover-art is done in the same style as the singles from 2016’s Bonito Generation. It’s all very nostalgic, and while the song may just be the theme to a children’s game on the PlayStation 5. It is still a near perfect tune with a killer solo in the final third.
10. “Exile”- Taylor Swift & Bon Iver
The most unexpected collaboration of 2020 turned out to be one of the best. While Folklore and its sister album Evermore may have left me a bit mixed, I cannot deny that “Exile” is a great song. Taylor Swift draws Justin Vernon a.k.a. Bon Iver out of the falsetto that he often relies on and into a deeper, textured delivery. While Justin pushes Taylor into some of her best writing in years.
9. “ファンファーレ (fanfare)”- Haru Nemuri
Haru Nemuri is one of the most unique voices in music. Her blend of rap, punk, rock, and hardcore stands completely on its own. With her 2020 EP Lovetheism, she departed on a new, grandiose, and hurried path. My favorite song from the bunch “ファンファーレ (fanfare)” comes with some amazing horn sections and a gorgeous bridge that takes the song from its already soaring heights to new, more impressive ones.
8. “Delete Forever”- Grimes
Grimes has never been one to stick to a sound. Her ventures in to punk pop and hardcore have been great, but her one-off foray into spacey indie folk sticks out the most. “Delete Forever” is yet another mixture of futuristic language meddling with human subjects. This time comparing deleting files to losing lifetime friends to addiction. Its harrowing and depressing, but strangely beautiful.
7. “Deadlines (Hostile)” & “Deadlines (Thoughtful)”- Car Seat Headrest
Will Toledo and the boys at Car Seat Headrest experimented with lots of new directions on Making A Door Less Open but few of them came out as well as the ambitious two-part track “Deadlines”. I love how each track has its own distinct sound but is still thematically connected to the other. While the payoff in each song is great, when coupled together they compliment each other perfectly.
6. “XS”- Rina Sawayama
The antithesis of Ariana Grande’s “Seven Rings,” “XS” is not pop’s first critique of capitalism, but it’s the first one to be this good. Pairing up with Clarence Clarity for this track and many others on Sawayama delivers an instrumentally detailed banger with great vocals and thoughtful lyrics. Whether you’re listening to the extended version, original, or Bree Runaway remix, “XS” is without a doubt one of the best pop anthems of the year.
5. “磁器 (porcelain)”- Ichiko Aoba
In a sharp departure from her previous sound, Ichiko Aoba has opted in to her own unique brand of chamber folk. Like the cover of her newest album, “Porcelain” is a swim through the depths of sonically rich, acoustic, singer-songwriter excellence. It works perfectly as is, incomprehensible as the lyrics may be to someone whose knowledge of the japanese language only goes as far as “konichiwa”.
4. “Microphones in 2020”- Phil Elverum
Yes, this is cheating. “Microphones in 2020,” is technically a song though, a 45 minute odyssey from legendary songwriter Phil Elverum, with multiple phases and narrative transitions, but a song nonetheless. It is the very definition of music nerd fan service, and for that reason the song does not really make sense in a vacuum. It contains references to all of Phil’s past work and life, it’s delightful for someone who is heavily invested in the “lore” behind The Microphones project. For those that aren’t it can be a little intimidating at first. Intimidation aside, Phil’s honest poetry and patented sylvan imagery is what makes “Microphones in 2020” a must listen.
3. “BALD!”- JPEGMAFIA
Devyn Hendricks aka JPEGMAFIA took a year off from releasing albums after putting out two of the decade’s best in Veteran and All My Heroes Are Cornballs. But that hiatus did not stop him from dropping some of his best work so far. From the two-part “COVERED IN MONEY!” to the old school style “CUTIE PIE!”, but it was “BALD!” that stuck with me the most. The hypnotic beat, airtight flows, and hilarious bars add up to a song that I once, according to Spotify, streamed 11 times in one day.
2. “I Know The End”- Phoebe Bridgers
In Phoebe Bridgers own words, “a song about coming to terms with the apocalypse,” and a brilliant one at that. “I Know The End” is a cathartic slow burn of a song with terse but lucid imagery and a climax for the ages. Putting a perfect book end on one of 2020’s best albums is just one of the many things that makes this song great. In a year like this one, there is a need for songs that feel like they would play as the world collapses around you.
1. “Forever”- Charli XCX
“I’ll love you forever, even when we’re not together.” In a year where I really didn't get to be with the people I love as much as I wanted to, this song really spoke to that. Charli’s takes on love and romance are always refreshing and this one is no exception to that. The tune is intense and endearing; and the way it all feels so contained, like its trying to burst out, felt like a wonderful metaphor for 2020.
Honorable Mentions: “The Void”- Kid Cudi, “Blinding Lights”- The Weeknd, “Lost In Yesterday”- Tame Impala, “The Adults Are Talking”- The Strokes, “The Steps”- HAIM, “Savage” — Megan Thee Stallion, “Kyoto”- Phoebe Bridgers.