2020 was majorly fucked up in so many ways. Seemingly constant throughout this hellish year was quality music output, though, be it from established megastars or new offspring of the streaming era. Top 10 lists can be so annoying; what REALLY goes into making a top 10 list? Do publications go through a long voting process among staff? Does an editor say ‘fuck it’ and just gut-picks the rankings? When does quality trump commercial success, and how does cultural impact or innovation factor into a list like this? Am I gay?
The short answer: it’s a crapshoot, and while everyone approaches a ‘Best Of’ ranking differently, I’ll lay out what went into my thinking.
The main considerations were, in no particular order:
- Is the song good in my ears?
- Did I like the song enough for it to STICK, causing me to come back to it?
- Is the song interesting? Does it do something that is new and exciting?
- Bonus points for songs that were made during quarantine, respond to this year of reckoning, or in some way (whether it was on purpose or not) resonate with people who are exhausted, burnt out, upset, yearning, devastated, etc.
- My ass… will the song make it bounce?
Before we get into the true top 10, let’s hit some Honorable Mentions. Even this list, which is, like, a thing I don’t even have to include, I had immense trouble paring down, so don’t yell at me if your faves aren’t here.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in no particular order)
- People I’ve Been Sad — Christine & The Queens | I mean, few songs really hit the nail on the head quite like this. I’m thrilled that sad bops have become so popular, and this one doesn’t even have the energy to try to be eloquently sad, which can get annoying. It’s straight-up with us! Love it.
- Flight319–070 Shake | Coming from a beautiful album, this track kept sticking out to me. The intro sounds like ambient music that might play in a scene of Avatar (the James Cameron movie), and much to my brain’s pleasure, the beat swoops in and 070 Shake’s voice rides the song’s irresistible current, one that feels simultaneously energetic and melancholic.
- Bad Friend — Rina Sawayama | Rina is one of the most authentic, vulnerable pop stars of this moment. She’s on a huge upward trajectory, but this song was closest to my heart off of her 2020 album SAWAYAMA. Charting her own instances of being a bad friend, it’s very honest and honestly, it slaps.
- Believe It — PARTYNEXTDOOR feat. Rihanna | Unfortunately, I do not know when Rihanna is releasing her own music again, but early in 2020 we did get this track, which was Rihanna’s first feature in God knows how long! And we will take what we can get. Right, class?
- Open (Passionate) — Kehlani | I wasn’t sure about Kehlani’s last album after a couple of early listens, but over time, it really grew on me. It’s a fantastic body of work, and this track just fucking does it for me; like in ‘Flight319,’ the introduction of the beat is SO pleasing. Do I got you way too open to be open? Kehlani sings (SIINGS!), interrogating both her lover and herself about whether an open relationship is going to work out. The (Passionate) part of this song makes this two-songs-in-one, a la ‘Nights’ by Frank Ocean, and it sounds like how an island spa might feel, but while you’re at the spa, you’re pretty turned on the whole time.
#10 Hallelujah — Haim
My fans will know that I talked on and on and on about ‘3 AM’ and ‘Now I’m In It,’ which are the best tracks on Haim’s GRAMMY-nominated 2020 album Women In Music Pt. III… however, ‘Hallelujah’ has made me gasp for air through drunken sobs, something no other WIMPII song can accomplish. It’s such a beautiful, sad song. Sometimes the sad bops aren’t dance-worthy! This is one of those times. Listening to ‘Hallelujah’ makes me feel like there is a higher power, and if that higher power were to exist, it would be the Haim sisters’ harmony over a stripped-down track, their voices joined ONLY by guitars and another existential-sounding chime-like instrument that I am unable to pinpoint. In a word, the song is enchanting. The video is awe-inspiring, and Haim feels as fully realized as they’ve ever been with this track and record. They’re a fucking force.
#9 Touch Me (feat. Kehlani) — Victoria Monét
I’m so happy that Victoria Monét released ‘MONOPOLY’ with Ariana Grande, because that song was enough to get me interested in who Monét is and what she’s all about. As I became acquainted with some of the singles off of her debut 2020 album Jaguar, I really got involved with her sound; she has not disappointed this year. One of the non-singles off of Jaguar was ‘Touch Me,’ a track I initially looked past in favor of the disco funk party bop ‘Experience’ with Khalid & SG Lewis or the song literally about making your ass fat, ‘Ass Like That.’ But ‘Touch Me’ worked on me over time; not only is the thought of a risqué endeavor with a lover extremely alluring, albeit impossible, in a pandemic, but the track simply oozes with sexual energy. The chemistry that Kehlani brings on the remix, though, is a sight to behold. Or a sound to behold? The track is so rich, I’m obsessed with the production, and this remix also bends the beat to make way for Kehlani’s honey-coated voice. It brings something new to the table, like every good remix should! This is a queer masterpiece, and I really wish more people were paying attention to Miss Monét. In a time when we can’t get close to just about anyone, this track might be perfect for you to get to know… yourself. Just a lil bit better that you already do. ;)
#8 Gucci (feat. Maliibu Miitch) — Bree Runway
2020 was a huge year for Bree Runway, culminating with a recently released debut EP 2000AND4EVA. ‘Gucci’ is the song that really hooked me on Bree, and only the second song of hers I’d ever heard at the time. I was locked in immediately; the track follows the typical formula of a 21st century cross-genre hit: pop singer owning the track while an energetic rapper features. But both parts function flow together in a wonderfully blended synchronicity; Bree is a commanding artist, bold and confident, meeting the level that Maliibu Miitch brings on her verse. They both pack a mighty punch. Bree might fall into a ‘hyperpop’ category, as a pop star in the making with a maximalist approach and a likeness to Rico Nasty (who features on Bree’s EP), but she doesn’t feel locked into some idealistic future. Bree transcends time; her EP also features none other than 2000s icon Missy Elliot, and with track titles like ‘Little Nokia’ and a brilliant cover of ‘Paparazzi’ by Lady Gaga popping up on YouTube, Bree is the whole package.
#7 Summer Feelings (feat. Charlie Puth) — Lennon Stella
I am LOL’ing as I type this!!! I’m really not being shitpost-y, though. This song, whether or not you choose to believe me, was my song of the summer… Well, not quite, because the #2 song on this list was my song of the summer. But this is SUCH a summer song! How many times can I write ‘summer’ in this blurb? I literally do not know a single Lennon Stella song, but her voice breezes through this track. Charlie is taken a little outside of his crooning, heavy bassline poppy r&b arena, but it works. The song is far from innovative and brings absolutely nothing to the table lyrically, but it sounds GREAT every time I listen. And I listened A LOT this year. It’s musical sunlight, I’ll be tanning to this all winter.
Bonus: this song was on the SCOOB! movie soundtrack. Take what you will from this fact!
#6 Why Not? — LOONA
While I’m first and foremost a Blink when it comes to K-pop, LOONA is intoxicatingly fun to follow. This year, they dropped another EP, and ‘Why Not?’ is the project’s crowning achievement. I tried (and failed) to really learn the dance to this, which was popular on TikTok, no thanks to my many attempts. ‘Why Not?’ is about as earworm-y as it gets — be warned, because this song will NEVER leave your brain. Luckily that’s probably for the best, because I was lost and purposeless before I heard this. You will be singing and doing the upper body choreo to ‘Ooh, la laa, a-way a-way a-wayyy’ til you meet your death. The music video is also extremely engaging and fun; there are many different concepts at play and it’s difficult to not stan LOONA immediately after viewing.
#5 August — Taylor Swift
When I tell you that when Taylor sings ‘Salt air…’ to kick this track off, I literally smell a briny sea breeze, would you believe me? August is to summer as Sunday is to the weekend (or is it Saturday? Up for debate…) but you certainly will not find any scaries here. Instead, ‘August’ takes us to some pristine New England beach (Watch Hill, perhaps?) in the late throes of a cleansing summer, the time sipping away like a bottle of wine. If you thought the young summer romance as storytelling device in pop was over, IT’S NOT! This song melts away any shittiness I’m feeling instantly; while the lyrics suggest Taylor’s singing about losing someone she might’ve never had, the grandeur of her daydreaming (I could see us twisting in bedsheets / August sipped away…) is an instant classic. This kind of sunglow fantasy is reminiscent of the princess-in-castle tropes of her ‘Love Story’ days, but to me, it’s from the same thrilling imagination of her record 1989. ‘August’ is the best track on folklore!
#4 Delete Forever — Grimes
I could tell almost instantly that this song was going to stay with me for a long, long time. Released with Grimes’ excellent 2020 album Miss Anthropocene, Miss Musk did what she she needed to (and so much more) with ‘Delete Forever.’ The track is extremely sad, charting her grief over friends and musical contemporaries (Lil Peep and Juice Wrld are two that she’s named in interviews) who she lost to opioid overdose. The chords… you could play them for me any time, any day, any place on any instrument. It’s a stripped-down, country/folk (?) Grimes like we’ve never seen before, baring her soul and making her grief public in quite a beautiful way. This track is such a gut check, and I really am so impressed with her ability to pack so much pain and significance into a track while maintaining a restrained, dialed-down production. It’s not the kind of blaring chaos that a song like ‘4 ÆM’ banks on (my second-favorite from the album) or like we’re accustomed to from her; the track gives wings to her fallen friends and feels extremely well-placed, temporally, in 2020.
#3 Savage Remix (feat. Beyoncé) — Megan Thee Stallion
In a year of copy-paste remixes that left a lot to be desired, the Beyoncé remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s TikTok smash hit ‘Savage’ absolutely delivered. From the chill-inducing beginning of the track (Q-Q-q-q-q-queeeeeen B) to Beyoncé’s sultry verses to the OnlyFans call-out, this remix is in a class of its own and a bonafide cultural touchstone. It is THE remix of 2020. The song was already wildly popular, of Meg’s own doing, and the addition of a behemoth like Bey sends this track into the stratosphere. I really commend the way this remix actually does something new; a good remix, to me, is its own distinct piece of art that can stand adjacent to the original without playing second fiddle. We’ve had so many remixes that are just song + guest verse, with the same exact production throughout; those can sometimes work, but this year I’ve been really disappointed with them (ahem, ‘Say So’ remix).
This remix entirely does its job, though, elevating the track fabulously. Both Bey and Meg have had huge years, and while I do think that both artists’ best work was put out pre-2020 (and is to come), there’s no question that both women dominated the pulse of pop culture all year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do a Beyoncé Peloton class because yes, those exist now!
#2 Rain On Me (feat. Ariana Grande) — Lady Gaga
Come one, come all! It’s the #1 song on my Spotify Wrapped… a collaboration between two of my all-time favorites… a house pop mega hit with the most cathartic chart-topping chorus and mantra of 2020… It’s ‘Rain On Me!’ As time moves on, as the world enters whatever post-pandemic life looks like, ‘Rain On Me’ is going to run with the greats — the ‘Break Free’s, the ‘Into You’s, the ‘Bad Romance’s, the ‘Edge of Glory’s. Does 2020’s 2020-ness ultimately give this song an extra oomph it might’ve missed in a different time? I think so. We may never know what the original plan for Chromatica’s rollout was, or how that would’ve impacted a year without COVID-19. But we know what this year was, and we know that ‘Rain On Me’ was, in conjunction with Dua Lipa’s outstanding 2020, one of the few remaining bits of evidence that dance pop has a place in the future (and definitely the now). Bloodpop gets a Chromatica oreo for the production on this; it’s one of those tracks where I knew I loved it immediately, but I was almost underwhelmed at first. Of course, after listening to it 20 times after midnight when it was first released, I understood and the stars aligned and I played it 100 times in my first week of streaming. That’s a good five hours of playtime! And daddy loves his playtime.
#1 Anthems — Charli XCX
Well, if you thought my #1 would be something other than Charli XCX, you’d be an enemy of the state! While I had an internal battle for the ages trying to decide if #1 should be ‘Claws’ or ‘Anthems,’ I had to go with the latter. While ‘Claws’ is one of Charli’s best tracks ever, I wanted to keep one song per artist in this top 10, and ‘Anthems’ goes to a place of carnal rage, desire and self-actualization that no other song this year could reach. No really, listening to this song got me a step closer to self-actualization. ‘I want! / Anthems! / Late nights, my friends! / New York!’ she belts over production that can only be described as a berzerk electro-charged rollercoaster hurtling through a wormhole. It’s the ultimate ‘FUCKKKK I MISS WHAT EVERYTHING USED TO BE LIKE AND WHY DID I TAKE IT ALL FOR GRANTED’ song, a testament to just wanting to feel like a fun-loving human again. The song came out in May with her ‘How I’m Feeling Now’ album, made exclusively in quarantine, at the height of “will we get a summer?” culture. What a fucking year it’s been, and what a song to encapsulate it all.
I leave you with a DM I sent Charli (she hasn’t responded, at least not yet) before this album came out, asking for a high-octane song on the album. Between you and me, I think she saw the notification for my message; she read it, and then made ‘Anthems.’