Let’s be honest: over the past 12 months, listening to a whole album or even an EP sometimes felt like simply too much effort. We’ve already highlighted the best that both of those formats had to offer in 2020, but to close off our 2020 Year in Review, it’s only fitting we round up the standout tracks that made the last year a bit more bearable: from Arlo Parks to Charli XCX and The Weeknd, these artists gave us songs whose vision was so singular and finely executed that returning to them over and over again came naturally even during a time of unprecedented isolation, the act of repetition less of a drag than a cathartic ritual.
25. Bartees Strange, ‘Boomer’
Bursting at the seams with the same dizzying energy that powers most of Bartees Strange‘s short but excellent debut Live Forever, ‘Boomer’ presents an infectious bricolage of sounds as it careens from pop-punk to jangle pop to blues to hip-hop. But rather than coming off as overly genre-conscious, redundant, or awkwardly executed, the song serves as a vehicle for Strange’s singular vision, anchored by the Washington, D.C.-based artist’s dynamic vocal presence as he sings about moving to Brooklyn from Oklahoma and experiencing somewhat of a personal renaissance. “Right when I get all of my hopes up, something explodes lord/ I never win,” he hollers, but when that chorus actually explodes, what comes out the other end feels like nothing short of a triumph.
24. Arlo Parks, ‘Black Dog’
Arlo Parks’ ‘Black Dog’ begins with a line so vividly poetic it pulls you right into the narrator’s headspace: “I’d lick the grief right off your lips,” the London artist sings in a hushed, gentle tone, before offering a close-up portrait of the other party doing their “eyes like Robert Smith.” Though borrowing a euphemism for depression popularized by Winston Churchill, Parks’ songwriting remains intimately personal and profoundly empathetic as she attempts to offer comfort and motivation to someone on the edge of hopelessness. Tugging along an understated, lo-fi instrumental, the song also seems to evoke the other person’s silent struggle, responding to Parks’ tender affirmations in the form of a recurring melody rising from the depths of the abyss. Though there’s a striking specificity to the song’s scene-setting, Parks might well be addressing any listener overwhelmed by the weight of crushing isolation – especially when the song came out in May – its earnest simplicity resonating in 2020 and beyond.
23. HAIM, ‘The Steps’
‘The Steps’ is immediately reminiscent of ‘This Life’, a highlight from Vampire Weekend’s latest LP Father of the Bride, and it’s not just because that song featured backing vocals from Danielle Haim and ‘The Steps’ was co-produced by the group’s Ariel Rechtshaid and ex-member Rostam. Just like that track managed to mine an incredibly catchy chorus out of the lines “You’ve been cheating on, cheating on me/ I’ve been cheating on, cheating on you,” HAIM managed to center one of their most fun songs around a dysfunctional relationship; gliding along well-baked, organic harmonies, supple bass, and weeping electric guitar, the sister group turn the frustrated cry of “You don’t understand me” into a cathartic hook that begs you to shout along. That line also happens to transcend the song’s narrative and takes on new meaning in the context of the band’s career, channeling a sense of righteous defiance that pulses throughout the album.
22. 070 Shake, ‘Guilty Conscience’
In a fairer world, or maybe a different decade, ‘Guilty Conscience’ could have been a giant hit. The infectious, 80s-inspired highlight from 070 Shake’s ambitious debut album ambles through gauzy synths and pensive vocals before exploding into space: soaring atop a hefty drum beat, the 22-year-old singer born Danielle Balbuena then shifts focus from the narrator’s restless headspace to a direct account of the night they caught their partner cheating, only to reveal they actually cheated first. Her voice aches with devastation even as everything about the production sounds polished and palpably larger-than-life, as if “restin’ while I’m inside your presence” refers not to a lover but the song itself. Even as she interpolates Ben E. King’s ‘Stand By Me’ to proclaim that “I won’t let you stay”, it’s clear the ghosts of a doomed relationship never really go away. But listening to ‘Guilty Conscience’, there’s no escaping that feeling of release.
21. twst, ‘Are You Listening?’
While the overarching themes of isolation and anxiety on twst’s captivating debut EP are more pertinent than ever, opener ‘Are You Listening?’ quickly took on a new resonance after it dropped in early February. With lines like “end of the world on my playlist” and “fingers frantic/ no one to touch”, the track isn’t just the most hard-hitting banger on the record, but also serves as a biting indictment of an online culture more comfortable with performative allyship than actually paying attention. “There has been an apocalyptic feeling that’s been looming over us now for a minute, even before Covid it felt like the world was bleeding hard,” twst wrote in the description for an alternative video for the song, which features footage related to police brutality, political corruption, fake news, climate change, and more. On ‘Are You Listening?’, her tone isn’t threatening as much as urgent, daring us to take a harder look at ourselves instead of constantly deflecting blame unto others.
20. Yves Tumor, ‘Gospel for a New Century’
“I think I can solve it/ I can be your all, ain’t no problem, baby,” Sean Bowie croons on the opening track of their latest Yves Tumor album, Heaven to a Tortured Mind. It’s a proclamation that’s also echoed on the album track ‘Kerosene’ (“I can be anything/ tell me what you need”), an acknowledgment of their own multiplicity and boundlessness as an artist and performer utterly unconcerned with genre barriers. Tumor shows they’re more than capable of inhabiting the role of the rock star, blending frenzied horn samples, rumbling basslines, and chaotic rhythms while somehow keeping the track deceptively straightforward. But though the song retains an elusive aura thanks to its fittingly apocalyptic title and shapeshifting production, Yves Tumor evokes the kind of romantic longing that makes everything around it feel not decorative but genuinely effusive.
19. Gordi, ‘Aeroplane Bathroom’
‘Aeroplane Bathroom’, the track that properly starts off Gordi’s sophomore album, serves as a striking introduction to the emotional rawness and honesty that characterizes the Australian singer-songwriter’s music. In a year that was anything but short of heart-wrenching piano ballads, this overlooked tearjerker of a song sits comfortably among the best of them. Written on a flight from Australia to Europe, it’s clear Sophie Payten had a lot on her mind: “I can’t get my shit together in this aeroplane bathroom/ I’m wondering why I haven’t seen myself before,” she admits, her vulnerable vocals barely holding it together as they float atop airy, spare keys. Payten then attempts to capture this fragile state of mind by giving it some kind of physical form: “the contents of my chest are down there on the floor,” she sings, before shifting her attention to the more tactile image of a bitten tongue and bloodied fingernails. The final minute or so of swooning ambience fees less like allowing for some breathing space than a direct response to the opening question: “Do you feel yourself unraveling?”
18. Rina Sawayama, ‘XS’
With ‘XS’, Rina Sawayama shows us how much she can pack into a 3-and-a-half-minute pop song and still make it sound infectiously catchy: expertly fusing elements of 2000s inspired bubble-gum pop and nu metal with a healthy dose of contemporary avant-pop maximalism, the SAWAYAMA single tackles hyperconsumerism and unrealistic beauty standards all in one fell swoop, mocking excess while very much indulging in it with its over-the-top, opulent production. Even as it draws you into its alluring world of wild hooks and irresistible vocal harmonies, it also hints at the chaos and hypocrisy that lurk behind its glossy veneer, and you’re left marveling at how Rina and her team have managed to make it all work so fabulously.
17. Samia, ‘Is There Something in the Movies?’
Throughout her debut album The Baby, singer-songwriter Samia showcases her ability to take something ephemeral and lock it in time through music. But the record’s emotional peak doesn’t arrive until the very end with ‘Is There Something in the Movies?’, a soul-crushing tribute to the late actress Brittany Murphy in which Samia makes her artistic intentions painfully clear while also offering an explanation for the uncertainty that permeates her perceptive songwriting: “I only write songs about things that I’m scared of,” she sings, her multi-tracked vocals sounding less like a ghost than a heavenly embrace. The line isn’t so much an admission of weakness but rather a recognition of her greatest weapon as an artist: “So here, now you’re deathless in art.”
16. Mac Miller, ‘Good News’
On the first single released after his death in 2018, Mac Miller delicately floats atop a plucky, mid-tempo instrumental courtesy of Jon Brion, whose tasteful production throughout the posthumous LP Circles beautifully accompanies the rapper’s warm, meditative verses. Also featuring Wendy Melvoin of Prince’s backing band, the Revolution, and veteran rock drummer Matt Chamberlain, ‘Good News’ invites the listener to settle into its calm, gentle tones, while Miller’s ruminations on life are imbued with a sense of weariness and quiet resignation that never really veers into hopelessness. Instead, what makes this song so heartbreaking is the rays of optimism that manage to seep through: “Well it ain’t that bad, it could always be worse,” he sings. Still, it’s impossible not to hear ‘Good News’ in the context of his tragic passing: even as he relays the struggle of the everyday, his intimate musings resonate on an almost spiritual level.
15. Perfume Genius, ‘On the Floor’
Nervous, boundless energy radiates through Perfume Genius’ ‘On the Floor’, one of the many tracks on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately that intimately evokes the kind of yearning for human contact that none can embody with the same unquenchable pathos as Mike Hadreas. But it’s not just his commanding yet vulnerable vocal delivery that sells the song so beautifully; Pino Palladino’s rubbery bassline twists and turns like it has a body of its own, while Blake Mills’ guitar flourishes give the song a potent but elusive physicality, interlocking with Matt Chamberlain’s percussion in ways that only make the song more danceable. But when Hadreas pleads for someone to “take this wildness away”, all those individual elements dissolve to allow for a moment of pure transcendence that leads to a stark realization: “I just want him in my arms.”
14. Charli XCX, ‘anthems’
Though far from the only lockdown anthem to be released in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, this highlight from Charli XCX’s quarantine project how i’m feeling now captures a storm of pandemic-induced emotions by fusing an abrasive, near-claustrophobic hyperpop instrumental with Charli’s stark emotional honesty and fervour. Careening from feelings of boredom and existentialism to yearning for some form of human intimacy and connection, the Dylan Brady and Danny L Harle-assisted ‘anthems’ was one of the few tracks this year that managed to effectively evoke not just the desperation brought forth by quarantine but also its emotional contradictions, embracing both vulnerability and escapism, but leaving behind a glimpse of hope: “Finally, when it’s over/ We might be even closer.”
13. Jessie Ware, ‘Spotlight’
“I don’t wanna sleep tonight,” Jessie Ware declares before a pulsing rhythm comes whooshing into the opening track of her latest album, which finds the British singer-songwriter turning back time to immerse us in the restless physicality of the dance floor. Brimming with romance and passion, the track immediately commands your attention with its luxurious synths and breathy vocals, but rather than putting the spotlight merely on herself, Ware invites the listener to actively be a part of it. Though the disco-inspired What’s Your Pleasure? is filled with irresistible dance-pop jams, ‘Spotlight’ stands out for its subtle emotionality, slow-burning progression, and exquisite delivery: when the swooning strings accompany Ware’s cutting final line, “Tell me when I’ll get more than a dream of you,” you know you’re in for a ride.
12. Sufjan Stevens, ‘America’
For all the familiar sonic cues that run through Sufjan Stevens’ sprawling 12-minute single – from the symphonic arrangements to the hauntingly memorable chorus – ‘America’ remains as disquieting as it is timely. Released in July, just one day before Independence Day in the US and several months into the coronavirus pandemic, the track doesn’t seem to present a vision of the apocalypse as much as it grapples with the feelings of dread that come with a loss of faith; in one’s own country, maybe even in one’s own self. “I have loved you, I have grieved/ I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe,” he laments, before repeating the song’s heartbreaking plea: “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” Though far from the first time Stevens has criticized the song’s namesake, here those musings seem to carry more weight, not only because of its brooding atmosphere but also because Stevens casts so many of those doubts back onto himself as he reflects on his own mythologizing of the US. But as the slow, droning instrumental fades into darkness, you can feel some of that tension diffusing, even if the sense of grief never really subsides.
11. Porridge Radio, ‘Lilac’
Out of context, the final lines on Porridge Radio’s ‘Lilac’ – and perhaps the most memorable moment on the Brighton four-piece’s excellent sophomore album – might come off as somewhat tastelessly moralistic. But as the song builds up, they actually feel more like a ritual: “I don’t want to get bitter/ I want us to get better/ I want us to be kinder/ To ourselves and to each other,” frontwoman Dana Margolin sings, repeating a mantra that feels like it’s risen out of a torrent of emotion like a glimmer of hope dredged right out of a stormy sea. It’s a slow-burning, earthshattering display of the group’s dynamic energy as well as Margolin’s strengths as an emotive vocalist, attempting to regain control of her own mind by turning a depressive thought cycle into a cathartic plea for kindness and compassion.
10. Bob Dylan, ‘Murder Most Foul’
The apocalyptic 17-minute song that somehow became Bob Dylan’s first No. 1 single when it came out in March before serving as the closing track to his latest album Rough and Rowdy Ways, ‘Murder Most Foul’ starts off as a take on the 1963 killing of President John F. Kennedy before unfolding into a kaleidoscopic rumination that sprawls through the entirety of 20th century American culture. Propelled along by one cultural reference after another half-sung over a muted orchestral accompaniment, the way the song/playlist oscillates between fact and fiction, myth and history, Dylan and America – it all seems to contradict the notion the lyrics on the album are “tangible, not metaphors,” as he put it a rare New York Times interview earlier this year. But there’s a striking simplicity to the way the song turns listmaking into a form of reverence without ever ignoring the gravity of each historical allusion, capturing a kind of endless wonder as it seems to stretch on forever.
9. Waxahatchee, ‘Fire’
A standout from her striking new album Saint Cloud, Waxahatchee’s ‘Fire’ seems to encapsulate the whole mood of the record in one revelatory moment. Katie Crutchfield sings of being “wiser, slower, and attuned,” and the music effectively mirrors that in its warm, graceful tones. Though it sounds like the skies have cleared up to allow for a deeper appreciation of the world around her, the song burns with a different kind of passion, its deceptive simplicity belying an ongoing struggle with self-acceptance. “If I could love you unconditionally/ I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky,” she sings to herself; but rather than taming that fire, that unquenchable yearning for more, the song’s driving instrumental and Crutchfield’s wondrous delivery shifts its focus towards the never-ending pursuit for clarity and open-heartedness.
8. Christine and the Queens, ‘People, I’ve been sad’
French avant-pop auteur Héloïse Letissier aka Christine and the Queens has described La vita nuova as a project about vulnerability, and that intensity of feeling comes through as soon as you press play on the multi-lingual, Dante-inspired EP. It’s not just because the spare synths and evocative melodies on opener ‘People, I’ve been sad’ serve as a vehicle for the raw emotion that’s implied in the song’s title; Letissier transforms that diaristic and ever-relatable confession into a neon-drenched, larger-than-life, but still wrenchingly earnest ode to interconnectedness. By breaking the fourth wall right from the get-go, she fills the gap left by heartbreak and conjures a feeling as universal as it is pertinent: “You know the feeling,” she sings beside her own ghostly shadow.
7. Taylor Swift, ‘mirrorball’
Taylor Swift managed to deliver not one but two of her best and most understated albums of her career in 2020, and ‘mirrorball’ stands out as one of the most intimately stirring songs the pop singer has ever crafted; the melodic swell of Jack Antonoff’s dreamy production only serves to accentuate Swift’s painfully revealing lyrics, which are more direct and personal than most of folklore and especially evermore dares to be. “I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try,” she sings during the song’s piercing bridge after woefully admitting that “I can change everything about me to fit in.” But Swift finds moments of grace and subtlety in spite of it all: rather than softening the blow of those anguished, vulnerable confessions, she wraps them in a warm embrace of an instrumental that shines bright even as it seeks to shatter that very façade.
6. Dua Lipa, ‘Levitating’
Dua Lipa knows how to make music for “dance crying”, but ‘Levitating’ marks somewhat of a diversion in that respect: a pure rush of euphoric emotions, the nu disco track and Future Nostalgia highlight pulses with confidence as the British and Kosovar Albanian singer gleefully relays feelings of romantic infatuation, sounding not just in love but in total control. From Koz and Stuart Price’s slick, sparkling production to Lipa’s playful delivery, ‘Levitating’ is packed with enough infectious hooks to carry not just a single song but at least an EP’s worth of bops, and the result is not only electrifying but genuinely uplifting. Lipa doesn’t just sing of having “a premonition that we fell into a rhythm/ Where the music don’t stop for life”; she practically manifests her galactic, retro-futuristic vision of pop music and pulls the listener closer to its life-affirming dance.
5. Adrianne Lenker, ‘anything’
Throughout her latest pair of solo albums, Adrianne Lenker summons familiar folk melodies to shield herself from a gnawing sense of emptiness, but on the gorgeous single ‘anything’, the Big Thief singer seems to want nothing but to remove all unnecessary distractions and cherish that empty space. It’s a quietly stirring song that revels in simple pleasures while yearning for more as Lenker intimates her plea for human connection: “I don’t want to talk about anything/ I wanna kiss, kiss your eyes again,” she sings, aching for “the sound of you blinking.” Even if the context of the album imbues it with an undercurrent of melancholy, ‘anything’ works its magic with as little as a comforting melody and warm acoustic guitar. As a result, it crystallizes a moment of love so raw and rare in its beauty it doesn’t matter whether it stems from a place of heartbreak; what matters is that it’s there, pure and simple yet all the more resonant.
4. Fiona Apple, ‘Shameika’
It’s hard to pick a highlight from Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters when every single song feels like a force of nature, but ‘Shameika’ no doubt boasts one of the album’s most memorable and affecting narratives. Apple stirs up a torrent of raucous emotion, piano and drums whirling around the singer’s dynamic vocals as she recalls a formative childhood memory of an older girl inviting her to lunch and telling her she has potential. “Shameika wasn’t gentle and she wasn’t my friend/ But she got through to me and I’ll never see her again,” she sings, but now, three decades later, the two women reunited and even collaborated on ‘Shameika Said’ (that’s Shameika Stepney’s voice at the beginning of the song’s music video). As Apple turns the chorus into a mantra, the song asks us to grip onto the things that have shaped who we are today, not just the trauma but the glimpses of kindness that keep us going.
3. The Weeknd, ‘Blinding Lights’
Aided by Max Martin’s refined production, The Weeknd delivered a lightning bolt of a pop hit with ‘Blinding Lights’, borrowing instantly familiar but no less infectious cues from 80s synthpop and New Wave and weaving them around a titanic hook and the kind of sky-high ambition that’s enough to sustain seemingly endless radio play. But this is the Weeknd, of course, and the darker edges that accompany that euphoric high soon reveal themselves both in the context of a parent album marked by nihilism and emotional detachment as well as the wider backdrop of pandemic-induced listlessness. ‘Blinding Lights’ is a song that resonates whether you choose to ignore those bleak undertones or not, where for one brief moment you’re allowed to indulge in that pure rush of adrenaline and let the song’s neon synths and driving percussion fully wash over you.
2. Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion, ‘WAP’
In a year where even the biggest hits seemed like they’d had all the fun sucked out of them (no more suggestive puns, I swear), Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion came through with a chart-topping female empowerment anthem that seemed to have little relevance to the pandemic besides externalizing the kind of sexual desire that tends to enrage prudes who are shocked by the word “pussy”. For all its occasional ridiculousness, ‘WAP’ is a shamelessly raunchy banger that places both its sexual politics and the two rappers’ infectious chemistry at its center. Building off a sample of Frank Ski’s 1992 Baltimore club classic ‘Whores In This House’ and following in the footsteps of the likes of Lil’ Kim, Trina, and Khia, Cardi and Megan are at the top of their game as they own their sexuality and deliver one insanely quotable line after another (Where were you when you heard the line “want you to park that Big Mack Truck right in this little garage”?). The rappers’ individual strengths – Megan’s assertiveness on the mic, Cardi’s comedic flair – complement each other in ways that are both imaginative and irresistible. Less spectacle than force of unity, the fact that the song became such cause for division only serves as a testament to its own cultural resonance.
1. Phoebe Bridgers, ‘I Know the End’
You can’t really blame people for projecting the apocalyptic mood that rips through the closing track of Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore effort unto the entirety of the album. Even without ‘I Know the End’, the events that defined the hellscape of 2020 are enough to justify a slight overuse of the ‘apocalyptic’ tag, not just where it may have otherwise been ill-suited, but also where it’s a bit too obvious. (That said, can we stop pretending Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was was the first time Bright Eyes sang about the apocalypse?). But there’s also the fact that ‘I Know the End’ feels like a culmination of everything Punisher slowly builds up to throughout its 40-minute runtime, a microcosm of an already broken world ready to collapse. It’s all there: hushed confessions over liquid guitars, a defiant mid-section, and a hair-raising crescendo that’s unlike anything Bridgers or anyone else made this year, complete with blaring horns and heavy metal thrashing loud enough to blast right through your skull.
But what ultimately makes the song so resonant is that Bridgers goes from simply delivering intimate observations that are universal in their specificity to something that actually feels universal in the most real and tangible way possible. When that chorus of what sounds like thousands of voices join in to shout “The end is here!”, screaming until their lungs hurt and gasping for air like Bridgers does at the very end of the song, you can’t help but feel an overwhelming rush of excitement and catharsis as you dive into the abyss along with everyone else. The magic of “I know, I know, I know”, she suggests, is not the sadness that permeates those lines, but the implied we. Coming from an artist who was quickly labeled one of indie’s most introspective songwriters, the power of that collective force only makes those personal triumphs echo that much louder.