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The Best Songs of 2020

Megan Thee Stallion was everywhere this year, but did she top our list? And what other songs truly mattered during this strange, difficult year?

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Hey, guess what sucked: 2020. Hey, guess what ruled: these songs. Is there any correlation, really, between the sucking and the ruling? Are these the jams that brought us together despite a year that tore us apart and whatnot? Who can say, really? We felt terrible a lot of the time; this music helped us feel better. Don’t overthink it, even if, as usual, we totally did. Rob Harvilla

10. Yves Tumor, “Strawberry Privilege”

Yves Tumor is everything we claim to want in an auteur musician—changeable, unpredictable, only truly explicable in their own terms. In the past, you had to work a bit harder to enjoy their music—although 2016’s Serpent Music was the toast of the ambient experimental scene, and 2018’s genre-agnostic Safe in the Hands of Love, which centered Tumor in their own sonic universe, was the most composed and accessible of their efforts. On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, which I feel safe calling a rock album, Tumor has fully sublimated the weirdness of their past exploits, and completed their transformation to unattainable bandleader. The effects are immediate and irresistible: The vocals on “Strawberry Privilege” are airy and right under your nose, its groove sexy and sinister. The refrain sounds eerily close to a kiss-off, as if Tumor has no sympathy for those of us who are only just getting it now, and no more patience to pretend otherwise: “You left you ran out of sight / Like you were, like you were s’posed to do.” —Micah Peters

9. Lianne La Havas, “Weird Fishes”

Yeah. A Radiohead cover. One of hundreds of thousands (perhaps from this year alone!), most of which are cheap stunts and wan attempts at gravitas, at subversion, at the most fraudulent sort of hipness. But London singer-guitarist Lianne La Havas—a soul singer with a virtuoso’s brain, a born romantic’s heart, and a fearless explorer’s guts—nails the best song on In Rainbows (yeah) by submerging it in sensual underwater funk and letting it sprawl, letting it slowly learn to breathe, letting its unease unspool into something very much like swagger. The centerpiece of her great and consistently surprising self-titled new album, this “Weird Fishes” is breathy and funky, unhurried and urgent. And when the drums really kick in and that rad arpeggiated guitar line finally emerges and La Havas’s voice builds to a gentle roar, the song has busted out of every prison the year 2020 (and 20-plus years of inferior Thom Yorke impersonations) tried to build to contain it. Sing along, and finally mean it: “Yeah / I’ll hit the bottom, the bottom / And escape.” —Harvilla

8. Digga D, “Woi”

Drill music is large enough to contain its own bubbling subgenres, and presently, accessible enough to be pop. “Woi,” the viral hit by West London rapper Digga D that made its way from YouTube to TikTok and back again, is a bizarre, compact spectacle. The three-minute song, which is about splashing opps, starts with imitable whooping in the distance and ends in rapture, via low, deliberate repetition. Digga D is calm, menacing; M1’s production is both bright and foreboding, building to an ecstatic hook that hectors you into posting it: “Jump out rise this TOY / jump out rise this TOY.” —Peters

7. RMR, “Rascal”

I have never been more confused in my life: A ski-masked gentleman in a Saint Laurent–branded bulletproof vest, flanked by several associates pointing guns at my head, launches into a bewilderingly tender cover of the country-cheeseball classic “Bless the Broken Road.” A smash hit for the supremely dorky Rascal Flatts back in 2004, the song belongs to the mysterious Atlanta-born multi-hyphenate weirdo known as RMR now, the vibe swinging from reverent to riotously irreverent, deferential to sublimely defiant: “And every sleepless night / Led me to where I am / Bitches that broke my heart / They became hoes I scam.” A viral sensation on contact in February, “Rascal” and its concluding chant of “Fuck 12 / Fuck 12” became, uh, timely as this accursed year progressed. What is going on? Is he serious? Can you afford to not take him seriously? I am still confused, and I have never been more delighted in my life. —Harvilla

6. Bartees Strange, “Boomer”

A consequence of his star rising in a pandemic is that Bartees Strange’s music videos consist of the 31-year-old D.C. musician playing frontman to a phantom band, and betraying much of the process. When you are the only person in frame, you can be as cool or as vulnerable as you want to be. We see the sweat on Strange’s brow as he stretches for higher octaves, we see the pushpins holding up the unassuming bed-sheet backdrop, which is red for contrast. In the “Boomer” video, he’s wearing his nice polo. Although the song subtly hints at it near the end of each refrain, you’re still caught unawares when the speedy jangle pop record suddenly, gloriously unfolds into a rootsy blues song. About two minutes in, Strange gets close to the mic as the gleaming, hectic production thins out to just his voice, and the low strum of his guitar: “You can’t hurt me / I been buried alive by the devil that’s in them hills.” Just seconds ago, this was a brash, jaunty ditty about smoking weed with your friends and lying to your girlfriend, and suddenly it’s life-affirming. —Peters

5. Christine and the Queens, “People, I’ve Been Sad”

LMAO at how hard I was vibing to this exquisite electro-pop hyperballad back in February, before its plea for tenderness, and empathy, and togetherness even amid near-total isolation became the unofficial but profoundly real soundtrack to one of the most bizarre and upsetting and isolating stretches of global calamity anyone alive can remember. “I was experiencing a really rough year personally, but I was sure I was doing OK,” is how the radiant French singer Héloïse Letissier, who records as Christine and the Queens, described the song’s creation to me back in June. “And then I wrote that song, and the song’s just a moment of brutal truth. Which is why it’s also scary to write a song sometimes, because you’re really afraid of what could come. I had to acknowledge the sadness. I couldn’t pretend anymore.” What resulted was a global group hug all the more poignant for being virtual: “If you disappear / Then I’m disappearing, too / You know the feeling / You know the feeling.” —Harvilla

4. Chloe x Halle, “Do It”

This year has been long, and it has put many things out of reach. More than outside I’ve missed anticipation—the feeling that leaving the house could bring some new and exciting, or at least varied, experience, provided you were open to and properly dressed for it. The sparkly keyboard line on this song gives it a kind of giddy sheen, evincing both the awkwardness of angling for the mirror selfie, and the cuteness of the eventual winning outfit. Ungodly Hour is the coming-out party after ascendant pop duo Chloe x Halle’s 2018 debut The Kids Are Alright; “Do It” brims most with possibility. The release of the remix featuring City Girls and a laser-focused Doja Cat was a minor event—while Yung Miami’s slightly off-kilter verse wasn’t so well-received, I submit that it was a casualty of momentum, and placement. As in, what if Playboi Carti got to go first on “Pain 1993”? —Peters

3. Lil Baby & 42 Dugg, “We Paid”

Twenty-six-year-old Detroit rapper 42 Dugg signals his approach with a whistle; it’s his trademark. He calls it jurrrry (jewelry), his voice is chirrupy and potent, and perhaps only 26-year-old superstar Lil Baby is currently better at talking shit. One of the year’s most addicting songs is at first unremarkable: “We Paid” is muffled, thumping drums and a few well-placed synth notes. The song achieves escape velocity on the sheer force of the charisma of Dugg and Baby, who both rap their asses off; each verse improves on the last, the baton passes are breath-perfect. —Peters

2. Phoebe Bridgers, “I Know the End”

It’s a long story. —Harvilla

1. Megan Thee Stallion, “Savage Remix [ft. Beyoncé]”

I think Micah would want me to say right up front that he personally prefers the “ChopNotSlop Remix” of this song, though that version does not include Beyoncé delivering the line, “If you don’t jump to put jeans on, baby, you don’t feel my pain,” so: agree to disagree. In a year when pretty much nobody put on jeans, ever, we all got our own personalized Megan Thee Stallions. The surreally hypersexualized titan who alongside Cardi B gave us the immortally lewd “WAP” (Meg’s other no. 1 hit this year). The resilient victim of gun violence and clueless social-media opprobrium who reemerged to vaporize her attacker and her doubters both mere seconds into her hit debut album. The heavily freighted political symbol who called out Kentucky’s attorney general from the Saturday Night Live stage. But the often unbearable real-world subtext obscures how much fun she managed to have this year, despite everything, and never more than on her first no. 1 hit: “Savage” in any form is a lascivious blast, a joyous earworm nonpareil, a triumphant note amid a brutally discordant 2020 Meg ruled even at her lowest. —Harvilla

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