Nightclubs were shut, festivals were canned, and gigs were basically outlawed, but some voices rose above the silence making the music that mattered, matter more than ever. A good song came to mean so much more in 2020. Don’t underestimate the power of three minutes of wonder in a year of so much darkness, a quick word of comfort through the isolation, a rallying cry for change when the world won’t listen, or a brief, sweet escape to take you somewhere else.
Rave, mosh, ponder, weep, holler and argue your way through the 50 best songs of 2020, the tracks that mapped the moments that kept us going.
Andrew Trendell, News Editor
Words: Alex Flood, Andrew Trendell, El Hunt, Ella Kemp, Gary Ryan, Georgia Evans, Hannah Mylrea, Jenessa Williams, Jordan Bassett, Kyann-Sian Williams, Nick Reilly, Rhian Daly, Sam Moore, Sophie Williams, Thomas Smith and Will Richards
50. Foo Fighters – ‘Shame Shame’
The pandemic may have completely decimated Foo Fighters’ plans for their 25th anniversary, but ‘Shame Shame’ proved that the rock giants’ future looks very exciting indeed. The first track from what Dave Grohl describes as a “fucking weird” tenth album, it saw the Foos trading stadium-slaying riffs for intricate drum beats, funk-laden melodies and a rare touch of subtlety. It was a brilliant first look at their next move, which seems to be a left turn.
Best bit: That first hypnotic pre-chorus of “I’ll be the one, be the moon, be the sun, be the rain in your song, go and put that record on” – it’s some of Grohl’s finest lyrics matched by Taylor Hawkins’ best drumming. NR
49. Rico Nasty – ‘iPhone’
Known for her sugary trap style that shifts from sparkly minimal beats to the heavy-hitting 808s, Rico Nasty showed the world her latest evolution when she unleashed the hyper-pop monster ‘iPhone’ – and isn’t it amazing? Disjointed and driven by gargling basslines and sharp synths, ‘iPhone’ was a fearless statement of her individualism, fiercely setting her apart from the current rap scene. A much-needed and revitalising shot in the arm, ‘iPhone’ went the extra mile to prove just how versatile Rico is.
Best bit: That moment when Rico’s cyberpunk approach to singing and rapping first clicks, and leaves you hooked. K-SW
48. Pa Salieu – ‘Frontline’
“They don’t know about the block life,” Coventry rapper Pa Salieu insisted throughout the hard-hitting ‘Frontline’, a searingly powerful homage to his locale. Here, danger is courted and eluded, drugs sold and consumed. Though proud of his COV home, Pa took a confident leap of faith in himself to deliver every detail over a pulsing Afrobeat melody without once shying away. He turned to his city with clear, vast ambition and scored a viral triumph in return.
Best bit: The canyon-sized bassdrop that opens up and takes over midway through. SW
47. Jayda G – ‘Both Of Us’
This is the first – but certainly not the last – song on this list that looked destined to be a summer rave anthem before this year’s festival season was so cruelly scuppered. It still bangs, though, building on the party spirit conjured in the producer and DJ’s 2019 debut ‘Significant Changes’ and embracing some pure house vibes.
Best bit: The almost-a cappella breakdown that launches into a turbo-charged finale – a final jig before the lights come on. TS
46. Jessie Ware – ‘Soul Control’
Jessie Ware’s ’80s-laced fourth album ‘What’s Your Pleasure?‘ was pure escapism, and never more so than on the total belter ‘Soul Control’. Sultry, infectious, and fuelled by glittering synths and breathless vocals, this took us right back to those dreamy nights of hazy clubs, writing bodies, and pure disco euphoria. Remember those?
Best bit: That glitzy strutting bassline – a siren call to the dancefloor. HM
45. Bob Vylan – ‘We Live Here’
Released months before the tragic killing of George Floyd and the wave of global protests for racial equality that it inspired, ‘We Live Here’ from London punk duo Bob Vylan was a rallying statement of how deep-rooted racism is when so tightly bound to territorial ideas of what it means to be ‘British’. Vylan screaming back memories of racial abuse on the streets outside his home over a fiery punk anthem made for a reminder that the fight for change goes far beyond a hashtag.
Best bit: Vylan planting his flag in his home turf as he spits: “Neighbours called me n***** / Told me to go back to my own country / Said since we arrived this place has got so ugly / But this is my fucking country / And it’s never been fucking lovely.” AT
44. Davido – ‘FEM’
Davido’s bravado is infinite on ‘FEM’, the braggadocious Afropop gem that exuded such independence and rebellion that it became an impromptu protest anthem for the #ENDSARS movement in Nigeria. It cut straight to the chase of what 2020 was about for so many. “Fem” means “shut up”, and whether that’s to your haters or a corrupt policing regime, Davido made the perfect soundtrack to stick your middle finger up to the bullshitters of this world.
Best bit: When Davido breaks it down after the first chorus with the fanfare in the background. You can feel crowds of people uniting in sweet rebellion. K-SW
43. Perfume Genius – ‘On The Floor’
Mike Hadreas’ music has long been fixed on transcending the imitations of his body, but 2020’s ‘Set My Heart On Fire’ immediately tapped into a grounded kind of physicality instead. ‘On The Floor’ was one of the album’s most instinctive centrepieces, bursting with bouncing, boundless energy. “How long ’til my body is safe?” Perfume Genius asked, adding “how long ’til this heart isn’t mine?” before finally insisting: “I just want him in my arms.”
Best bit: The closing moments – winding down from pulsing ’80s odd-pop to twinkling melancholy – feel like the lights flooding on at the end of a night out. EH
42. Don Toliver – ‘No Photos’
There’s just something that Houston’s Don Toliver does to you every time you hear his crooked, Auto-Tuned croon. After going viral on TikTok with bangers like ‘No Idea’ and ‘Best You Had’, Toliver dropped ‘Heaven Or Hell’ – the sultry R&B and hip-hop crossover album of the year. ‘No Photos’ was the knockout tune, oozing with sensuality from those catchy opening “uh”s and “ooo”s before giving way to a perfect blend of hip-hop’s bravado and R&B’s ineffable feels.
Best bit: Every time he goes, “Ugh!” – when Don does it, it sounds like poetry. K-SW
41. Girl In Red – ‘Rue’
Named after the Euphoria character of the same name, the first preview of Girl In Red’s upcoming debut album was a pristine, deeply emotive piece. An unrequited love, a painstakingly honest meditation on mental health – it made for utterly devastating stuff from the NME 100 alumni. With a spectral synth hook that circles in and out of this pained catharsis and distress growing by the second, the Norwegian pop hero sounded as if her heart was breaking in real time.
Best bit: When a final plea of “I’ll make it work” is repeated until the words turn numb. SW
40. BTS – ‘Dynamite’
Released to spread some positive energy during the pandemic, ‘Dynamite’ burst through 2020’s bleak mood by offering an instant serotonin hit of bold, bright fun. Whether it was RM’s assurances that he’d “got the medicine so you should keep your eyes on the ball” or its ridiculously catchy chorus, this disco-pop belter provided the perfect recipe for blasting away the blues, each play serving up the same mood-flipping power as the first time you heard it.
Best bit: The combo of the stomping beat and Jungkook’s caramel cries ushering in a crescendo that somehow ups the already skyscraping euphoria to even greater heights. RD
39. India Jordan – ‘For You’
The Doncaster-born, London-based DJ and producer’s majestic second solo EP ‘For You’ provided a much-needed five-star blast of disco-meets-house abandon this year. Its thumping title track helped keep spirits up over the summer, and it’s heartwarming message to their past self – who grew up displaced and isolated in a small town – to keep going in the face of adversity resonates to all.
Best bit: When the beat kicks back into life at the four-minute mark. What’s the word – euphoric? Yeah, that. SM
38. Bad Boy Chiller Crew – ‘450 – 2020 Mix’
A product of the north’s long-established love affair with bassline, ‘450…’ was the unmistakable sound of a nostalgic night out in Bradford: where happiness looks like a piss-about with your mates, a few Inbetweeners-esque fibs about how many girls you actually pulled, and a Maccies breakfast on your way back home. Inherently loveable in its youthful exuberance, this was the track that put Bad Boy Chiller Crew on the map.
Best bit: Like ’em or loathe ’em, it’s impossible to deny the catchiness of Bad Boy Chiller Crew’s bouncy chipmunk beat here. Git up! JW
37. Disclosure – ‘Watch Your Step’ (feat. Kelis)
Constructed for packed-out clubs and festival tents, the Brighton duo’s first album in five years couldn’t have come at a less-fitting time. Stuffed with massive bangers like this R&B-flavoured noughties throwback – featuring pop diva Kelis – ‘ENERGY’ was instead employed as a soundtrack to socially-distanced raves during lockdown (aka Friday night beers in the front room). Still, ‘Watch Your Step’ slaps all the same. Dance like nobody’s watching, because they aren’t!
Best bit: Kelis’ multi-tracked vocal during the first chorus – super-slick garage to take you back to Top Of The Pops in its prime. AF
36. Pop Smoke – ‘Shake The Room’
Starting off 2020 right, the great Carnasie drill star Pop Smoke delivered us timeless floorfillers on his second mixtape ‘Meet The Woo 2’ before his untimely death a week later. Mixing unique and danceable UK drill production with Smoke’s bellowing vocals, ‘Shake The Room’ had a new generation of fans pay tribute and shake their fists just like Pop to this groovy goodbye from a talent gone too soon.
Best bit: The fact that Pop Smoke managed to get Migos’ Quavo on a drill track – and he actually sounds good! K-SW
35. Charli XCX – ‘Claws’
Produced by 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady, ‘Claws’ was an enticing single that teased Charli’s lockdown album ‘How I’m Feeling Now’. Centred around that oh-so-sweet chorus of “I like everything about you”, this was a sentimental ode to being in quarantine with the one you love. Sugar-coated vocals came paired with playful lines like “slip and slide up my thighs / Juicy just like clementines” – cementing Charli as a master of cheeky pop bangers for a new age.
Best bit: The stuttering one-line chorus is sugary, sweet and straight to the point. GE
34. Dominic Fike – ‘Chicken Tenders’
It’s been a big year for Dominic Fike, with the Floridian wunderkind releasing his much-anticipated debut album ‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong’ back in July. The record was first introduced a month earlier with its filthy earworm of a lead single ‘Chicken Tenders’, which provided a tasty, finger-licking and R&B-leaning sample of Fike’s vaunted dexterity when it comes to pop songwriting.
Best bit: Dem drums – powering everything forward whenever it threatens to stop. SM
33. Hayley Williams – ‘Simmer’
Finally delivering on the solo project that her fans had craved and feared in equal measure, the stakes were high for Paramore’s Hayley Williams – but she more than delivered with ‘Simmer’. Layering earthy Radiohead-style percussion with a newly bluesy vocal take, Williams set the tone for ‘Petals For Armor’ – a record full of self-exploration, challenge and personal growth. A fresh start never sounded so good.
Best bit: The sheer relish of the way she sings “fucker”. Hell hath no fury like Hayley Williams scorned. JW
32. Working Men’s Club – ‘John Cooper Clarke’
This taut punk-funk existential crisis from the Todmorden newcomers – all hypnotic synth bleeps, twitchy guitars and perfectly controlled build-ups and breakdowns – even received the seal of approval from the Bard of Salford from whom it took its name. Basically, it sounded like 5am in a throbbing warehouse rave that tempts you to half-think: “Sod granny! I’m heading to an illegal lockdown party.”
Best bit: Frontman Sydney Minsky-Sargeant’s brooding battle-cry of “we dance and we smile…We live and we die.” GR
31. Blossoms – ‘If You Think This Is Real Life’
The real joy in Blossoms’ third album ‘Foolish Loving Spaces’, which saw the band embracing their inner pop stars, was witnessing the band not give a single fuck about what people thought about their transformation. “We might be uncool, but so are ABBA and everyone loves them,” frontman Tom Ogden told NME back in March – and the album’s joyous opener embodied that carefree, poptastic spirit.
Best bit: Its bombastic chorus, which lands roughly halfway between the theme song of a ’70s TV game show and Black Lace’s ‘Agadoo’. Glorious. TS
30. Megan Thee Stallion – ‘Savage Remix’ (feat. Beyoncé)
When Beyoncé took Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘Savage’ and stapled on a 16-bar rap (alongside a fresh verse from Megan), it catapulted the song to legendary status. Released to raise funds for COVID-19 efforts in Houston, ‘Savage Remix’ became a viral sensation for its quotable lyrics, many of which were embellished with internet references. As Beyoncé dropped bars like “hips TikTok when I dance / On that Demon Time, she might start a OnlyFans” she perfectly matched Megan’s signature audacity.
Best bit: Queen Bey rapping about TikTok, Demon Time and OnlyFans – could it be any more 2020? GE
29. Fiona Apple – ‘Heavy Balloon’
At times clattering and at others soothing, this powerful gutpunch dealt with the quagmire of depression, likening living with it to trying to play with the song’s titular heavy balloons. Fiona Apple wasn’t letting herself be beaten by it, though, offering a defiant, hopeful spirit through green-fingered metaphors of growth and new life: “I spread it like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans.”
Best bit: The first time Apple’s voice switches from calm and soft to an urgent, determined rasp. RD
28. Gorillaz – ‘Aries’ (feat. Georgia and Peter Hook)
Episode three of Gorillaz’s stellar ‘Song Machine’ series saw the cartoon band team up with dance-powerhouses Georgia and Peter Hook for what essentially sounded like the best track the latter’s former band New Order have released in ages. Driven by Hooky’s signature wandering bass, the elegiac ‘Aries’ came on like Damon Albarn’s love-letter to the Manchester group – right down to the nervy drum machine, plangent vocals and gnomic lyrics, hit the requisite mournful/euphoric sweet spot.
Best bit: Obviously it’s Hooky’s identifiable twanging bass, taking you right back to New Order’s halcyon Hacienda prime. GR
27. Róisín Murphy – ‘Murphy’s Law’
When asked about the Dua Lipa/Jessie Ware disco revival by NME, undisputed dancefloor icon Róisín Murphy replied: “I’m back to snatch their wigs!” This slinky cut from her (superb) album ‘Róisín Machine’ proved she wasn’t wrong. Timeless and transcendent, it sounded like a lost classic that Andy Warhol might have danced to under Studio 54’s moon and spoon.
Best bit: Her spoken-word opening – “I feel my story’s still untold, but I’ll make my own happy ending” – which feels like Murphy draped imperiously over a chaise longue ready to dispense some hard-won truths. GR
26. Sports Team – ‘Here’s The Thing’
Sports Team are at their best when they set cutting, sardonic lyrics over joyous, moshpit-ready indie, and ‘Here’s The Thing’ has it all. The track saw the band taking swipes at consumerism, nationalism and a whole lot more with enough untamed energy to fully hammer their message home. “Everything in life is fair and that’s the rules,” they wink. Get righteous with a huge grin on your face.
Best bit: That breakdown into a final verse of pure pandemonium – we can smell the sweat from here. WR
25. Kelly Lee Owens – ‘Corner Of My Sky’
If this song was any more Welsh it would be charging through daffodils humming Shirley Bassey showtunes. As it is, John Cale’s softly spoken vocal – delivered over seven minutes of Rhuddlan-born Kelly Lee Owens’ soothing techno-pop – was already enough to evoke images of lush, green valleys and damp country walks. Add to that a bonkers video in which Michael Sheen battles a supernatural toaster and you’ve got a warped jam that was as unique and brilliant as the country it came from.
Best bit: When the suffocating synth refrain is replaced by soaring, John Williams-esque strings – like a ray of sun breaking through rain clouds. AF
24. Kanye West – ‘Wash Us In The Blood’ (feat. Travis Scott)
Released amid the renewed energy behind the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s little surprise that Kanye’s contribution to the cause should be vital, energetic, artistic and, with its electrifying ‘Yeezus’-era sound and lacerating biblical imagery, quite devastating. “Holy Spirit come down,” he implores, “we need you now,” offsetting the divine with the filth and the fury keeping us bogged down here on planet Earth. With Dr. Dre on production and a short, sharp feature from Travis Scott (“30 states still execute / Thou shalt not kill”), this incendiary single marked a master back at his best.
Best bit: For all the track’s righteousness, it was joyful to hear Kanye’s sense of humour intact when he claimed that record labels, afraid of his outspokenness, are “tryna sign a calm Ye”. JB
23. HAIM – ‘Steps’
Coloured with frustration, ‘The Steps’ found HAIM fighting to make a relationship work. Tough stuff, but they managed to make it sound like unmissable fun, exorcising any negative feelings through swooning guitar licks, a beat that urged you to get up and bounce, and cathartic cries of “you don’t understand me!”
Best bit: Every time the sisters assert: “Every day I wake up and make money for myself / And though we share a bed you know I don’t need your help.” Right on. RD
22. The 1975 – ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’
As quintessentially 1975 as it’s possible to get, ‘…Too Shy’ was a fan favourite at shows even before it was committed to tape. For good reason, too: it was an ’80s-tastic banger that manages to tick off a new-age soundbath intro (courtesy of FKA Twigs), Top Gun guitars and a classic dose of Matty Healy’s millennial self-loathing all within the first two minutes.
Best bit: That sax solo – totally irresistible, and core to the bands’ retro appeal. JW
21. Miley Cyrus – ‘Midnight Sky’
Throw those horns up! With ’80s-indebted synths, a platinum-blonde Debbie Harry mullet and garish metallic graphics, Miley Cyrus’ 2020 comeback marked the point the pop queen morphed into the rockstar she’d always threatened to become. Complete with a knowing wink to her post-divorce tabloid speculation (“See my lips on her mouth, everybody’s talking now, baby,” she grins), this was the kind of firecracker rocker that Cyrus always seemed primed to make.
Best bit: The gravelling pre-chorus wail is up there with the best vocal performances of Cyrus’ career. EH
20. Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande – ‘Rain On Me’
On Gaga and Grande’s pulsing collaboration, it didn’t rain – it poured. One of the greatest things about pop music is the way that it takes pain and trauma and elevates them into something joyful and healing, and ‘Rain On Me’ was the textbook execution of that. “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive,” the pair belted out in the chorus, finding hope and resilience in the darkest of places.
Best bit: That mangled-vocal hook – it’s just automatically unmistakable and iconic. EH
19. Beabadoobee – ‘Worth It’
Ever teetered between the thrill of an illicit fling and the gnawing feeling that you’re colossally fucking up? Beabadoobee has. “I wanna see you again / Don’t know what I’m saying,” she admitted on ‘Worth It’s giant sugar rush of a chorus, inviting you into the tug-of-war between the angel and devil on either of her shoulders. The battle of not giving in to temptation and self-destruction never sounded so good.
Best bit: That fizzing riff that catapults you into the heart of ’90s alt-rock, but still feels gloriously fresh. RD
18. Billie Eilish – ‘Therefore I Am’
The beat might have sounded lazy – in a deliberate way – but Billie Eilish’s lyrics have never been more slicing, her chorus more bruising than on ‘Therefore I Am’. The standalone single felt aligned with some of her heavier material melodically and had plenty of bite in her existential musings about fake friends, intrusive tabloids and haters at large. This was Billie at her most effortlessly intimidating. Bring on album two.
Best bit: “I’m sorry, I don’t think I caught your name,” she coyly said nearing the end, toying with her haters. Billie has never needed your approval, and she certainly doesn’t now. EK
17. Tame Impala – ‘One More Year’
Released pre-pandemic, it’s perhaps fitting that Tame Impala’s fourth album ‘The Slow Rush’ meticulously examined our relationship with time and the nostalgia that comes with extended periods of reflection. “Do you remember we were standing here a year ago?” Kevin Parker asked, adding that “if there was trouble in the world, we didn’t know“. A serendipitous reminder that we didn’t know how good we had it in the before-times.
Best bit: Honestly? How this song is so eerily prescient: “We’re on a rollercoaster stuck on its loop-de-loop / ‘Cause what we did one day on a whim has slowly become all we do.” All Kev is missing is a line about Zoom mishaps and baking banana bread, and it’d be the inadvertent lockdown anthem for this rotten year. TS
16. Little Simz – ‘Might Bang, Might Not’
Written with the kind of ‘fuck it’ conviction that only comes from having all of your plans thrown out of the window, ‘Might Bang, Might Not’ became an unlikely corona-era anthem by making use of Simz’s rapid-fire wit and charisma to perfectly capture the pent-up energy of being stuck indoors. She might have only intended it “for the now”, but this sort of energy is forever.
Best bit: “I’m fuckboy resistant” – put this stuff on t-shirts and you’d make a killing. JW
15. Bring Me The Horizon – ‘Parasite Eve’
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the title of ‘Parasite Eve’ was a bit too on the nose for 2020, but as frontman Oli Sykes told NME, the track was actually written last year about another threatening superbug. Still, as he screamed, “When we forget the infection, will we remember the lesson?” Sykes and band gave us one of the most pertinent wake-up calls imaginable, and one of their heaviest efforts in years.
Best bit: When Sykes growls, “When all the king’s sources and all the king’s friends don’t know their arses from their pathogens”. Sound familiar? NR
14. The Killers – ‘My Own Soul’s Warning’
On sixth album ‘Imploding The Mirage‘, The Killers fired up the classic cars once more and came screeching full-throttle out of the Nevada desert. Fuelled by the Americana spirit of Springsteen and a War On Drugs-esque widescreen sci-fi sound, opener ‘My Own Soul’s Warning’ was an explosion of fireworks at the starting line.
Best bit: Brandon’s cry of “I JUST WANTED TO GET BACK TO WHERE YOU AAAARE“. It’s just begging to ignite a stadium when live shows return. NR
13. Fontaines D.C. – ‘A Hero’s Death’
Any doubts over how Fontaines D.C. would follow up their stunning debut ‘Dogrel’ were immediately destroyed with comeback single ‘A Hero’s Death’, the title track of album two. As Grian Chatten bellowed his existential manifesto for a better life over stirring rock’n’roll here, the Dubliners proved were far from a one-album wonder – but an essential band for these times.
Best bit: The song’s final cutting riposte: “That was the year of the sneer, now the real thing’s here.” WR
12. Doja Cat – ‘Boss Bitch’
Penned for the soundtrack of DC Comics’ Birds Of Prey, ‘Boss Bitch’ was a relentless statement of intent from LA singer/rapper Doja Cat. “I’m the whole damn cake and the cherry on top,” Doja quipped. “Shook up the bottle, made a good girl pop.” Those pogoing synths, meanwhile, spoke to a particularly bouncy era of early ’00s dance music, reincarnating the vague pulsing spirit of David Guetta and The Egg’s mash-up ‘Love Don’t Let Me Go (Walking Away)’ and adding some trademark Doja Cat grit. Bow down to the boss.
Best bit: The appreciative lyrical nods to Doja’s rap contemporaries Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion – classy. EH
11. Christine and the Queens – ‘People, I’ve Been Sad’
“It’s true that people, I’ve been missing out for way too long,” Christine and the Queens (aka Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier) sang on the sorrowful yet majestic February single from her ‘La vita nuova’ EP. A song about the deep well of sadness that pulls you away from those closest to you, its meaning would inevitably become universal in a year like the one we’ve just endured. However, ‘People, I’ve Been Sad’ also stood tall on its own as an ode to Christine’s stunning emotional power.
Best bit: When sorrow is trumped by community in its chorus: “If you fall apart, then I’m falling behind you” – just the tonic. WR
10. The Strokes – ‘Bad Decisions’
Undoubtedly indebted to both Modern English and Billy Idol, ‘Bad Decisions’ still sounded quintessentially like The Strokes – like they’re finally letting themselves have fun and be romantic again. Enjoy the tumbling drums, the upbeat optimism of that looping riff and Julian Casablancas’ crystal-clear flirtations with whoever he’s making bad decisions for. The second it was released, ‘Bad Decisions’ was destined to join the ranks of ‘Reptilia’-level bangers: a simple singalong with a solid riff, welcoming back the good times for a band who’ve been through so much strife. God knows we’ve needed a laugh.
Best bit: The first few seconds here that shine the brightest – that riff is like the first sip of your favourite tipple on the first day of summer. EK
9. Phoebe Bridgers – ‘I Know The End’
There’s a good reason ‘I Know The End’ closed Phoebe Bridgers’ triumphant second album ‘Punisher’. It was an epic cacophony; musing on the apocalypse while boasting the singer’s delicate, calm and reflective side before blossoming into the biggest thing she’s ever done. “Either way / I’ll find a new place to be from,” Bridgers sang, waving goodbye to her haunted house. Exciting and overwhelming, it was a statement to those who thought Phoebe Bridgers was just another sad girl with a guitar about just how much fire lies within.
Best bit: The last minute, as horns and drums collide with Bridgers enlisted closest friends and collaborators screaming until their throats hurt. Mega. EK
8. Taylor Swift – ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’
Swift had wanted to write a song about Rebekah Harkness, the American socialite who used to own the singer’s house in Rhode Island, for years. But it wasn’t until The National’s Aaron Dessner (who collaborated with Swift across her eighth album ‘Folklore’) sent Swift the original instrumental for ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ that she finally felt the time was right. Here, Swift engaged masterful storytelling techniques over Dessner’s glitchy, cantering production, vividly spinning the tale of Harkness’ life while drawing parallels between the sexist criticism both women have received (such as being called “mad” and “shameless”). It’s an astonishing song: one that fuses witty lyricism with megawatt hooks, and a reminder that Taylor Swift is an artist who should never be underestimated.
Best bit: The rich storytelling: Swift brings Harkness’ story to life through concise, pithy couplets like “And in a feud with her neighbour / She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green“. HM
7. Rina Sawayama – ‘XS’
The thrill of Rina Sawayama’s ‘XS’ wasn’t just its roaring maximalism, which paired raucous nu-metal influences with glossy R&B pop, but how profoundly audacious it was. With a transfixing vocal that tensed and shifted throughout, the dizzying lead single of the rising star’s debut LP ‘SAWAYAMA’ threw swift, blunt punches at capitalist ignorance and culture, quickly making her a star the world over (who could forget that Jimmy Fallon performance?) Lavish and outrageous, as a match of song to message, it was perfect. Ultimately ‘XS’ will be remembered as a true, long-deserved breakthrough moment for the pop icon of the future.
Best bit: The most ear-twisting moment of ’em all, when staggering riffs square off against that eerie, trembling violin line. SW
6. Run The Jewels – ‘JU$T’ (feat. Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha)
RTJ roared back into life in 2020, packing a powerful, politically charged punch with their deservedly acclaimed ‘RTJ4’ album. Arguably the pick of the bunch on the record is ‘JU$T’, which saw Killer Mike and El-P linking up once again with Rage Against The Machine’s legendary shouter-in-chief Zack de la Rocha (“the unofficial third member of Run The Jewels,” El-P declared recently) and inviting Pharrell along for the ride – not a bad line-up, right? Recorded at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studios, ‘JU$T’’s searing critique of capitalism, crime and social injustice in the US over El-P’s bouncing and Neptunes-nodding beat made for a classic RTJ composition. Scratch that: a classic RTJ anthem, and the one the world needed.
Best bit: Pharrell yelling “SHIIIIIT” like he’s doing his best impression of Clay Davis from The Wire before dropping the already immortal “look at all these slave masters posing on yo’ dollar” line. SM
5. Romy – ‘Lifetime’
The xx have always been known for monochrome moodiness and minimalist indie-noir, but on ‘Lifetime’, we got to know the real Romy Madley Croft: dancefloor destroyer. A burst of near-ridiculous Eurodance camp-pop abandon, it was entirely at odds with any preconceptions of Croft you might have had and the lonely confines of lockdown it was written in. If we were allowed to be in clubs or losing our shit in festival fields at sunrise, this would have been this year’s unifying banger, following the lineage of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, Lorde’s ‘Green Light’ and even Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’. We will dance together again, and this will be our song.
Best bit: The MDMAzing glow that hugs you when she sings “If this world comes to an end, I wanna be there with you” before the first drop. AT
4. Arlo Parks – ‘Black Dog’
The most devastating songs are rarely the ones that scream about their arrival. Gliding quietly onto radio A-lists back in May, Arlo Parks’ ‘Black Dog’ initially presented itself as understated lo-fi, before her knack for dishing out relatable wisdom rose to the surface. Gentle flourishes of guitar framed Parks’ struggle to keep an unwell friend above water: “Sometimes it seems like you won’t survive this / And, honestly, it’s terrifying.” In a year where isolation and uncertainty have affected us all, ‘Black Dog’ was the kind of song to spark all kinds of life-saving conversations or, at the very least, lend a hand of comfort to those who know all too well what it’s like to have darkness nipping at your heels.
Best bit: The driving guitar that gently coaxes you through the song and serves as a stoic accompaniment to Parks’ reassuring voice. JW
3. IDLES – ‘Grounds’
“Do you hear that thunder?” roared IDLES frontman Joe Talbot here. No, he hasn’t taken Rishi Sunak’s advice and retrained as a weatherman. This was the Bristol band’s barbed missive to the doubters, detractors and backbiters; a future-punk stomper that saw them team a lithe, scything riff and crunching electronics with stinging putdowns (“Not a single thing has ever been mended / By you standing there and saying you’re offended”). It’s looking shouty with a chance of moshpits.
Best bit: When Bad Seed Warren Ellis yells “Hey!” at just the right moment, his only contribution to the song. It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. JB
2. Dua Lipa – ‘Physical’
Cometh the hour, cometh the Dua. The second single from her opus ‘Future Nostalgia’ saw Dua come out all-legwarmers-blazin’ with this adrenalised ‘80s-hued banger, which tipped a wink to Olivia Newton-John’s lusty hit of the same name. Although it dropped in January, it heroically kept dopamine levels raised during Lockdown 1, whether soundtracking an escapist kitchen-disco or home HIIT workout (an alternative camp neon aerobics-inspired video underscores the aesthetic). Inspired by Flashdance, it was an unrelenting riot of spoken-word pre-choruses and euphoric gold-plated hooks that hit like a bosh of industrial-strength poppers. “We created something phenomenal, don’t you agree?” she asked. We sure do.
Best bit: When it goes full ’80s wind-machine during the “hold on, just a little tighter!” bridge. GR
1. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion – ‘WAP’
The most talked about song of 2020 is also our Number One. Could there be any other?
A sparse, juddering beat, an artfully deployed sample of Frank Ski’s 1992 Baltimore club staple ‘Whores In This House’ and the dual talents of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion – there really were no added frills to be found on ‘WAP’. With two of the most trailblazing names in rap at its helm, ‘WAP’ didn’t need bells and whistles. In place of maximalism, Cardi and Meg stood ferociously imaginative in penning their sordid loveletter to wet ass pussy, and the eminently quotable one-liners *ahem* come thick and fast.
Crucially, the two featured artists were perfectly matched partners in filth, one-upping each other with gleeful precision. “Put this pussy right in your face, swipe your nose like a credit card,” demanded Cardi, single-handedly making a case for both mouth-spitting and the immediate demise of contactless payments during a highly contagious pandemic. Then Meg rose to the occasion. “In the food chain, I’m the one that eat ya / If he ate my ass, he’s a bottomfeeder,” she smirked, before promising to spell her own name as she “ride the dick”.
Even the censored, radio-friendly “wet and gushy” version of ‘WAP’ was unfathomably dirty – a major achievement – and, best of all, the song has succeeded in pissing off the kind of prudes who wither with disgust every time a woman dares to centre her own sexual desire. Dangerously horny in a way that speaks directly to the casual sex bans of the lockdown age, ‘WAP’ was the titan track that drenched the entire year. Bring a bucket and a mop.
Best bit: Though it’s hard to pick just one searing line, the sheer exuberance of Cardi’s “want you to park that Big Mack Truck right in this little garage” surely takes the trophy. EH