Clubs remain closed. Same with bars and arenas and coffee shops and theaters and DIY venues and basement parties. But while live music has come to a terrifying halt in 2020, artists have been anything but silent during a global pandemic. This is a once in a generation human crisis. But even though we can’t experience it together, music has provided hope, escape, and cathartic dance parties streamed directly into our bubbles.
Artists like Run the Jewels have provided anthems for a civil rights movement. Taylor Swift has found her voice as a great American storyteller. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion boldly celebrated the sexuality of women, much to the chagrin of shitty men. Dua Lipa gave us a much-needed excuse to move. And BTS gave legions of fans a glimmer of light.
There was no real song of the summer. There were no festivals. There were no sunsets at outdoor amphitheaters. We experienced these songs intimately, in our apartments, and homes—hopefully in small quarantine-friendly groups. This was a year in which we listened in little ways, maybe privately even—a one-on-one back-and-forth that in a strange way might have brought us closer to the music.
Below is only a small sampling of the music we heard in 2020. There is much much more than this—all of it mattered to the people who made it and those who heard it. But these are the 25 songs that really hit us hard this year. And you can experience it too, through our own Spotify playlist. Apply liberally to the affected area.
“WAP,” Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion
When you think about the headlines that dominated in 2020—unprecedented pandemic, halted economies, mass unemployment, impossible-to-contain fires—that an explicit ode to female pleasure would not just cut through, but take over front pages and prime time, should rattle your bones. We may be firmly in the 21st century, but women celebrating what women want remains revolutionary. Lucky for us, our new leaders in battle are two young, beautiful, unapologetic Black rappers named Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. I’d follow these women anywhere—certainly onto YouTube to watch this video one (hundred) more time(s). —Madison Vain
“Betty,” Taylor Swift
In 2020, across two albums, Taylor Swift’s writing entered literary territory. Always a storyteller, her songwriting in her indie-influenced Long Pond Studio Sessions took her usual diary passages and used them as influence to create characters and whole worlds. She has, perhaps, never written a song as perfect as “betty”, the story in which she inhabits a character named James and his young love with Betty. As is always the case with her music, “betty” has been the subject of much speculation and what it means for Swift’s personal life. But Swift maintains that she attempted in this song to use her music to tell stories from different perspectives. No matter if it’s autobiographical or not, “betty” marks a bold step forward from music’s greatest storyteller. — Matt Miller
“Dynamite” got our Winter issue cover guys to No. 1 for the first time, “Life Goes On” made it two in a row, but if this track from Be gets released as a single, expect the phenomenon to get even bigger. BTS channels the terror and frustration of 2020 into a hip-hop song that manages to be peppy and cathartic, swaggering and vulnerable all at once. Writer j-hope says the theme of pandemic angst “fuses with the beat, as if the song is trying to get over itself and stay positive.” It works; BTS are a force, and “dis-ease” is a jam. —Dave Holmes
“walking in the snow,” Run The Jewels
“You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper—‘I can’t breathe’/And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV,” Killer Mike raps on “walking in the snow.” These are the words protesters shouted in the streets of his home of Atlanta as they marched, fighting against police brutality and systemic racism. They’re lyrics that Mike could have written in 2020 as the murder of George Floyd sparked a civil rights movement. But, Mike wrote these in response to another murder of an unarmed Black man, that of Eric Garner in 2014. That these are lyrics that could be ripped from the headlines in any year in America is a great and utter travesty. And this song is an ineffable reminder to never stop fighting. — Matt Miller
“Babylon,” Lady Gaga
Everything that makes Gaga Gaga— the repeating syllables, the Madonna allusions, the drama-club enunciation, the complete over-the-top ridiculousness, and your inability to resist it— is in abundance on Chromatica’s final track. It’s about parties, or rumors, or ancient Egypt, or the Renaissance, or all of it, or none of it. Who knows, and who even cares; when the gospel choir pops in from nowhere to declare “THAT’S GOSSIP!!!” you’ll be too busy dancing to ask the burning question: “Huh?” — Dave Holmes
“Small Town Hypocrite,” Caylee Hammack
Caylee Hammack may be new on the Music City scene—her debut album arrived just this year—but you’d never guess it by listening to her sing. At just 26, she delivers her (exceptionally well-written, mind you) verses with a near devastating knowing. Nowhere is that on better display than here. Across an ocean of steel guitar, it’s a song about growing up, from someone who’s done it. —Madison Vain
There’s a cathartic sense of irony that comes with listening to “Lilacs” during a spring of unprecedented loneliness. With Dylanesque composition, Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield sings about isolation and the rejuvenating power of nature. “I wake up feeling nothing / Camouflage the wavering sky / I sit at my piano, wander the wild whereby / And the lilacs drank the water / And the lilacs die / And the lilacs drank the water / Marking in the slow, slow, slow passing of time,” she sings in the opening lines of the song. In hindsight, they read like an artist’s social distancing diary. But buried beneath the subject matter, the song has an easygoing complexion and an innate sense of hope. “When I wrote that chorus, I was like, ‘All right, we’re going to make this a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel,’” Crutchfield told Rolling Stone of the song. And this song certainly leaves the impression that things will get better. —Matt Miller
“Horen Sarrison,” beabadoobee
“Care” is a perfect gateway into 20-year-old British-Filipina Beatrice Laus’ debut album Fake The Flowers. But for me the heart of the record is this ballad, written for Laus’ boyfriend, filmmaker Soren Harrison. “I want you to know that I’m in love,” she sings, “but I don’t want you to feel comfortable.” The bliss of young romance with a twist of ‘90s indie angst, from what might be my album of the year. — Dave Holmes
“Under the Table,” Fiona Apple
It’s worth spending time with Fiona Apple’s entire 2020 LP, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, which dropped in April to near universal praise. But even in a sea (um, 13 songs) of true gems, “Under the Table” still stands out. The defiant—and at times sing-songy—cut sees Apple tell off a fancy man at a fancier party for thinking he can control what comes out of her mouth. Full of fury and nearly overwhelming in its feeling, it’s a uniquely female fantasy that can’t, and won’t, be ignored. —Madison Vain
“A.P.I.D.T.A.,” Jay Electronica
Though the basket great is never mentioned by name in the song, Jay Electronica wrote A.P.I.D.T.A. the night Kobe Bryant died. A somber and lucid meditation on death, Electronica is open about his own grief and the loss of his mother. “The day my momma died, I scrolled her texts all day long,” he raps on the track. It’s pure, knowing poetry. And with vivid, striking details Electronica and Jay-Z rap over a sample of “A Hymn” by Khruangbin. “The flesh we roam this earth in is a blessing, not a promise,” Electronica says near the end of his verse, one of the most wise and elegant lyrics I’ve heard in a song all year. — Matt Miller
“Changes,” Ruston Kelly
Kelly’s Shape and Destroy is one of the records of the year, a country-flavored “dirt emo” meditation on the revelations and challenges of early sobriety that’s a lot more fun than I’ve just made it sound. Its opening track concludes “at least I’m not the thing I was before,” with a determination that’s reassuring, because at the end of this year, none of the rest of us are either. — Dave Holmes
“Idontknow,” Jamie xx
After five years, the wait for new music from the producer-DJ-xx band member has officially ended. And it’s not just that the 31-year-old is releasing music under his own name again that feels so vital—it’s also what he’s releasing. His five-and-a-half minute return bangs with skittish baselines, chopped up vocals, frenetic tempo changes, and trancey interludes that, while occasionally hard to follow, feel right in line with the chaotic world they release into. —Madison Vain
“Safaera,” Bad Bunny
An incredible feat of scope and production, Bad Bunny’s “Safaera” spans decades of influences, referencing Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” and Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Could You Be Loved.” Alongside features from Jowell & Randy and Ñengo Flow, Bad Bunny and producers DJ Orma and Tainy flip the dial on nostalgia, spinning it into an irresistible, inventive, and frenzied reggaetón club banger. The genre is among the most influential sounds in global hip-hop and Bad Bunny continues to be a lead innovator in the space, proving why he deserves to be the biggest pop star in the world in 2020. —Matt Miller
“Space Samba (Disco Volador Theme),” The Orielles
The title of this English indie band’s second album Disco Volador translates to Disco Flying, I guess, and though it may not make sense on the page, put on this track and tell me you’re not out of your chair within fifteen seconds. There are hints of early ‘90s rave-inflected Britpop in here, put through a Stereolab filter and aimed for the dancefloor. The Orielles ask “Can you re-align the boundaries of my sensory home,” and while I have no idea what that even means, I lean toward yes. —Dave Holmes
“White Boy,” Jensen McRae
Over a lush, Mazzy Star-esque groove, 22-year-old Los Angeles singer-songwriter McRae takes us to a college party where an African-American woman finds herself code-switching for a charming white guy: “Twirl my hair, watch my voice jump the octave/I don’t like who I am for you, white boy.” She’s described her sound as “Tracy Chapman writing music for Adele while studying for the vocab section of the SAT,” and with an equally frank and stunning second single “Wolves” just out, we think she is poised to be massive. —Dave Holmes
“Roger Ebert,” Clem Snide
Eef Barzelay brings his indie-country band Clem Snide back after a five-year hiatus, and if it seems strange to be doing that with a song about Roger Ebert’s dying words (“This is all an elaborate hoax”), Clem Snide never did play it safe. It’s a soothing meditation on the mysteries of life, the perfect sonic cushion to ease our increasingly chaotic day-to-day. —Dave Holmes
“Be Afraid,” Jason Isbell
“Be afraid, be very afraid, but do it anyway”: The exact right message at the exact right moment. With the first single from his upcoming Reunions album, the alt-country firebrand makes the case for speaking your mind, especially if your voice is shaking. “We don’t take requests, we won’t shut up and sing/Tell the truth enough, you’ll find it rhymes with everything.” And for Isbell, it’s not just talk: on March 3rd, he did a Super Tuesday fundraiser for Alabama Senatorial candidate Doug Jones. He’s been overdue for a breakout, and this might just be the track that does it. —Dave Holmes
“People, I’ve Been Sad,” Christine and the Queens
Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier is direct on her first new single of 2020. “People, I’ve been sad,” she says carefully, slowly. Over a simmering synth beat, she demands you to listen as she voices her own struggles. In a time when we see a cry for help on social media elicit nothing a hit on the like button, or a quick comment of support, “People, I’ve Been Sad” asks us to truly connect emotionally. There’s space in this song—in the dialed back production, between each word—begging you to react, to truly share this experience. It’s a powerful reminder to be open, to listen, and to really meet people as individuals with feelings and not as fleeting moments on your timeline. — Matt Miller
“Breathe Deeper,” Tame Impala
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t immediately excited for a new Tame Impala album. I’ve loved every previous album and seen each tour, but over the years, my excitement, undeservedly, faded. Kevin Parker’s crowds had grown more bro-y with each passing year, as his shows embraced a more pulsing club mentality. It’s unfair, I know, but I was worried about what Parker had coming next. It turns out, on The Slow Rush, the musical mastermind at once embraced the future and the past, all at once. “Breathe Deeper” is a perfect example, as it blurs a ‘70s funk jam with lush synth breakdowns and a tumbling drum beat. What’s most astonishing is that he’s able to take each of these parts and blend them into a package for the modern festival circuit. I’ll be fist pumping right next to the bros this summer. — Matt Miller
“Big Conspiracy,” J Hus
“They wanna judge me from what they heard I do / It’s a big conspiracy,” J Hus sings on the title track of his sophomore album. It comes two years after he served a brief sentence for carrying a knife in a shopping center in East London. (He was stopped because a police officer said he smelled of cannabis.) The track, with references to Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs and a system that’s set up to explicitly work against him, is an introspective look at a world that is conspiring to bring the rapper down. That he does this over a soulful beat, with jazzy guitar chords, adds to the contemplative nature of the song—and stands in stark contrast to the narrative that the media is trying to thread. — Matt Miller
“Delete Forever,” Grimes
I’m constantly astonished by the range and scope of Grimes’s music. Often, it can be alien—an otherworldly creation all her own. Her latest album further establishes her as a pop star of the future. There are dystopian club bangers, near-ambient techno, and soaring sci-fi synth ballads. But the most surprising song on a set full of pure creative energy stuns in its normality. “Delete Forever,” is an earnest, strumming (with banjo of all things) acoustic track, like Grimes’s version of the token acoustic song from an early Green Day album. Written the night that Lil Peep died, the song, musically and production-wise, doesn’t hide its fantastic songwriting beneath overly lofty ideas. It’s an earnest meditation on the opioid crisis; straightforward, beautiful, and powerful in its simplicity. — Matt Miller
“Neon Skyline,” Andy Shauf
Andy Shauf’s songs are charming tales of everyday life. The vibes are good, like a friend telling a random little anecdote over a beer after work. It’s laid back, it’s harmless, it’s casually relatable. On Neon Skyline, every song works as one linear narrative, and its title track sets the scene and the characters, and establishes the laidback attitude that defines the set. It’s perhaps the least pretentious concept album you’ll find—and by the end of this opening track, Shauf has already made a great friend out of you. Just sit back and enjoy what he has to tell you. — Matt Miller
“Next to You,” Little Big Town
Revolutions come at every decibel. In the case of Little Big Town, one of the most transgressive acts in Nashville, they arrive softly, wrapped in honeyed, four-part harmonies. Since their song “Girl Crush,” off 2014’s truly excellent Pain Killer LP, broke out, igniting a debate about whether or not it promoted pro-gay content—“I want to taste her lips/ Yeah, ’cause they taste like you,” Karen Fairchild sings, soaked by jealousy—the act has embraced its ability to transform from the mainstream’s center. Last year’s “The Daughters” rejects traditional expectations of women, wonderfully, wishing a new dawn for the world’s young girls. “I’ve heard of God the Son and God the Father,” they sing, brazenly, “I’m just looking for a God for the daughters.” It’s a theme that ebbs and flows throughout their ninth album, Nightfall. (Songs like “Sugar Coat” are absolutely must-listen fare.) But few acts know better when to push and when to pull back, and one of their finest moments arrives here, as they recede towards simpler concepts. An ode to the safety found in familiar, physical connection, it’s an undeniable witness to everything this foursome does well musically. — Madison Vain
“Physical,” Dua Lipa
I’d dare you not to dance upon hearing the latest single from Dua Lipa, but there’s simply no fun in the impossible. With a chunky, chugging synth line and a shout-your-heart-out chorus—“Come on! Let’s get physical!” she exclaims, in her smokey lower register—the 24-year-old Brit’s idolized ’80s touchstones are obvious. That doesn’t mean they don’t still surprise, especially in how well they’re executed. Echoes of that era are all over the current pop charts, but with just one album under her belt (her second, dubbed Future Nostalgia, arrives this year), few are doing it better than Dua Lipa. “Physical” is her flashiest, finest entry yet—and it’s almost worrisome to think she’s just getting started. — Madison Vain
“Martingales,” The Lone Bellow
Certainly, you’ve heard the news: things are bad. Things are exhausting. Divisive. Polarizing. They’re bogged down by lies and inspired by hate. Respite can be hard to find in 2020, a year that’s only seen two months but feels ten times longer. As such, our salves and escapes deserve extra credit, not to mention a few more spins on the turntable. One of mine arrived late on The Lone Bellow’s February LP, Half Moon Light in the form of “Martingales.” “If yesterday is too heavy,” lead singer Zach Williams pleads, with his full-throated, rasp-lined instrument, propped up over warm acoustics by his bandmates’ harmonies, “put it down.” Put it down. After just a few listens, you’ll certainly find sweet, cathartic release. — Madison Vain
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.
Madison Vain is a writer and editor living in New York, covering music, books, TV, and movies; prior to Esquire, she worked at Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.
Dave Holmes is Esquire’s L.A.-based editor-at-large.
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