It’s unfair to expect music to encapsulate 2020, a year so deeply defined by the killing of Black men and women by police and a pandemic that shows no signs of slowing down. Some songs have been able to, of course, despite the impossible bar, which is yet another example of music’s uncanny ability to lock into a moment (and our insistence on locking a moment into a piece of music). Meanwhile, other songs have provided a brief alternate reality, or a moment of vicarious escape. At least I can imagine all of the functions where I would’ve heard Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.”
It’s been a weird, very bad year. The music has been sort of weird too, but not bad at all; quite good actually; life-affirming, you could even say. With all apologies to so many deserving tracks—we still love you, the 1975, Noname, and Run the Jewels—these are the 10 best songs of 2020 so far. —Gruttadaro
To read the rest of The Ringer’s Best of 2020 (So Far) lists, click here.
10. Lil Wayne, “Mahogany”
Even as a person with a Wayne lyric in his Twitter bio, I can admit that Funeral was a little soggy. Tha Carter V carried the weight of years of expectation and scandal; Funeral, despite its dramatic and suggestive title, often feels “just because.” I like Sheldon Pearce’s characterization of the album as a skate compilation: Wayne uses his first truly emancipated album to try a bunch of stuff, and “wipes out a few times.” There was no need for “Trust Nobody,” a droning duet with Adam Levine about feeling suspicious of yourself and others, for instance. But then, he’ll pull tricks you didn’t even know he still had in his bag: The Mannie Fresh–produced “Mahogany” is three minutes of free-associative madness seemingly stemming from a color he happened to see walking into the studio. Sometimes I lie awake at night thinking about this passage, which is not unlike Vince Carter poking 360 dunks in Year 20:
Good times, no hard times, uh-oh, it’s that time
We at war, I check my Chopard for the exact time
Bang, bang, brrat time, I’m reppin’ Fab Five
Flag high, red, red, red, bloody vampire
Plug was a fucking Arabi, it’s no cap, slime
Judge gave me time, I did that time like nap time
9. Kamaiyah, “Project Baby”
You know what I love about Kamaiyah? What I love about Kamaiyah is that her music almost always feels like what the middle of July feels like, or like what it feels when the sun is going down on an especially enjoyable early August day, or like what it feels like when everything briefly goes your way.
It’s a weird feeling to try to explain, but only if you’re trying to explain it to someone who has never listened to any of Kamaiyah’s music, because anyone who has listened to Kamaiyah’s music will almost certainly say, “Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like. She makes music that is always very good, but then it becomes profound when you listen to it during a good day in one of the summer months.” She has such a strong grasp on exactly who she is as a musician, and exactly the best way to weaponize her most magnetic skills, and exactly the type of art that she wants to make. And because of that, you can put any of her songs on (but especially “Project Baby”) and you’re not you anymore; you’re where she wants you to be; and it’s a way better place; really, truly, honestly. —Serrano
8. Caribou, “Home”
“When I first heard the intro to that Gloria Barnes song, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a perfect loop. Stop everything,’” Dan Snaith, the producer behind Caribou, told The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla in February. The opening of Barnes’s 1971 song “Home” features her gently saying the word for all of two seconds; Caribou’s 2020 song “Home” turns it into a repeating mantra, the soft bellow recurring for all two minutes and 36 seconds of the track underneath Snaith’s chopped-up soul sample (Harvilla compared the production to early Kanye; Snaith likens it to Madlib). It’s a creature comfort; a reassurance; a state of mind. Caribou’s 2020 album, Suddenly, diverges in all directions as Snaith dabbles in deep house, electronica, R&B, synth-pop, and beyond. But it’s this song you keep coming back to—a warm, quick respite and reminder of purpose—just as you might your own childhood home. —Gruttadaro
7. Soccer Mommy, “yellow is the color of her eyes”
In my quest for distraction and thus, new fixations, I realized something about seven-minute songs. We need more of them. Good seven-minute songs and not nakedly self-indulgent ones, of course—it’d be great if this could not turn out like when we praised narrative music videos for their artistry and then got a rash of maudlin, half-baked “short films” from musicians. I would, however, very much like to be taken on more journeys, you know? For one, they take up a good chunk of time. But more importantly, they’re magic: They tease something like a big heartbreaking chorus only to reveal something much bigger and more affecting later, like a bridge five minutes in that soars into space on boosters made of reverb. —Peters
6. Phoebe Bridgers, “I Know the End”
The first 10 songs of Phoebe Bridgers’s Punisher play like a collective dirge, a slow-burning, meticulously paced, and often soft production about the troubles of life on the road, the dreams we craft to escape, and the way we fail the ones we’re closest to. The first two minutes of the album’s closing track, “I Know the End,” play that way too. “Somewhere in Germany, but I can’t place it / Man, I hate this part of Texas,” Bridgers opens the song over a slowly rolling guitar riff, before moving on to a concept of loss. But a different song emerges halfway through—the guitar changes, the melody switches, horns begin to drone, and as Bridgers points at things outside the window of her imaginary car, momentum builds. Then she yells—really yells. It’s an incredible moment within an incredible song, set up by an entire album. The release is easily worth the wait. —Gruttadaro
5. Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé, “Savage (Remix)”
Has there been a bigger song this year? Or a smarter song this year? Or a song with a more perfect coalescence of parts and pieces? Or a more exciting realization than when the news came out that Beyoncé, perhaps the biggest and most popular musician on the planet, was going to be on a song by Megan Thee Stallion, who has already begun her march toward claiming one of the crowns? I would guess no. I would guess that this song—what with its opening keys and Beyoncé dragging her voice through hot coals saying she’ll “turn this motherfucker up 800 degrees” and Megan doing that ad-lib she does except but with the confidence of someone who knows she’s standing in the center of the spotlight now—will be the song that stands in the most stark contrast to this horrible, horrible year.
It’s a Ferrari parked in the driveway of a house that’s burned down. You get in it, and you push that button to start it, and then you press your foot down on that gas pedal, and you’re not sure if it’s the car that’s driving you away from the wreckage or if the car is so powerful that it’s staying in place while the wheels spin the earth faster on its axis, pushing everything behind you. Either way, it doesn’t matter. You’re free. Eventually, everything will be circled back around and you’ll be in that driveway again. But not now. Not right now. For those four minutes, you’re good. You’re a bear cub. Or something. —Serrano
4. Thundercat, “Dragonball Durag”
The world fucking sucks. A bunch. Not all of it, mind you. Some of it is pretty great. I watched a video the other day of two bear cubs wrestling with each other and that was cool. It felt good. They were very adorable in their obliviousness, particularly when they would stand up on their hind legs and barrel into each other. I wish bears stayed small. If, for whatever reasons, bears in the wild suddenly began to stop growing past, say, 20 pounds—like, they just didn’t grow any bigger than that—I have no doubt that mini bears would instantly become the most popular pets in America. I would purchase a minimum of two mini bears, and possibly up to four, depending on what sort of day I’ve been having whenever I meet the mini bear salesperson.
And, listen, I know none of this has anything to do with anything, but that’s kind of the point here.
Because, again: The world fucking sucks. A bunch. Which is why I have so greatly appreciated the music that has made me not feel that way. Thundercat’s “Dragonball Durag” is an excellent example. It’s so absolutely confident and transportative that it allows for an escapism that is far too hard to come by. You turn it on, and then suddenly, at least for a few minutes, you get to be the real-life version of the This Is Fine meme. Here:
It’s lush, and wonky, and if you close your eyes when it comes on it feels a lot like your feet have been lifted up off of the earth which, for a third time, let me tell you: fucking sucks a lot right now. —Serrano
3. Pop Smoke and Gunna, “Dior (Remix)”
It makes perfect sense that drill should become the sound of 2020, first because its current iteration seems to have sprung up spontaneously from the corners of the internet, and second because it’s not primarily a “fun” sounding genre of music. It’s a collision of twitchy drums, proggy, thundering bass, and usually some crucial, distracting detail. “Dior,” by late Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke, which has become part of the soundtrack for national unrest, for example, has a whinging violin and a booming bass line that sounds as if it’s heralding an advancing army. It’s music that brings with it not just the compulsion to dance, but to do it on something. Like a table, or a couch, or a cop car. —Peters
2. 070 Shake, “Guilty Conscience”
Ye was a public meltdown, one that wasn’t dramatic enough to be concerning and not original enough to be accidentally taken for tortured genius. 2018 was a point of critical exhaustion for Kanye West, and even the prettiest parts of his eighth studio album were uncharitably scrutinized—like 070 Shake on “Ghost Town” (“Put my hand on a stove / To see if I still bleed”). She sounded, to me, like one of many emo rappers from the internet who was rescued at some formative age by Kid Cudi, and also wouldn’t your hand burn if you put it on a stove?
This year’s Modus Vivendi—Shake’s druggy, spacey debut—proved that her music was searching and desperate and blunt in its own unique way. “Guilty Conscience” is the song your friend who likes music will have evangelized about: It’s the last few swigs at the dregs of a failed relationship and the beginnings of a revenge fantasy over this escapist, teen-movie synth pop. It’s every bit as good and comforting as that sounds. —Peters
1. Christine and the Queens, “People, I’ve Been Sad”
No song can truly capture the experience of sitting indoors for months on end, trying to draw one’s eyes away from the charts that detail how bad this all really is and the videos that detail how so many refuse to accept it. But Christine and the Queens’ “People, I’ve Been Sad” comes close. Because people, I’ve been sad. And I know you’ve been too. And at least acknowledging that we both know the feeling—as Héloïse Letissier sings again and again in the chorus—is some sort of consolation. “People, I’ve Been Sad” didn’t mean to be the anthem of 2020; at its core, the bilingual and starkly honest track is hitting on a more general loneliness and ennui. But great songs often become regarded as great because of the way they inadvertently encapsulate a moment, which is exactly what this song does. But more than that, Letissier is confident enough to simply put her finger on this depression, without judgment or solution. There’s solace in that mere recognition. She knows the feeling, I know the feeling, you know the feeling. —Gruttadaro