The Top 25 Songs of 2020

A song can grab us in all sorts of ways. We fall for it by the time the first chorus kicks in; or it takes a dozen listens before its genius reveals itself; or it plays during a relevant moment in our lives and becomes forever attached to it; or it burrows its way into our subconscious and starts playing in our cerebral jukebox. In a year when almost everything didn’t work like it was supposed to, these 25 songs were reassuring reminders that music could still take hold of my emotions in these same old ways.

Happy listening, and happy new year!

25. Swamp Dogg (ft. Justin Vernon & Jenny Lewis) – “Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg”

In 2020, I thanked god every day that I could still hug and kiss and sleep next to the person I love. The ache in this 77-year-old R&B legend’s voice spoke for those who couldn’t.

24. Polo G – “Martin & Gina”

“I get this feeling in my stomach when you next to me,” confesses this inherently melodic Chicago drill rapper, evoking what love feels like in a way no multi-camera sitcom ever could.

23. The Chicks – “Tights On My Boat”

Natalie Maines delivers a viciously cathartic kiss-off to her trifling ex-husband, over wink-and-a-smile acoustic strumming: “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m gone?”

22. Zara Larsson – “Love Me Land”

Love is an amusement park on this gobsmacked electro-pop earworm.

21. Angel Du$t – “Turn Off the Guitar”

This side project for members of the hardcore bands Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice has become an unexpected pop juggernaut – “Turn Up the Guitar” is their boppiest effort yet.

20. Machine Drum (feat. Freddie Gibbs) – “Kane Train”

What Freddie Gibbs does to this beat is some gold-medal-worthy gymnastics.

19. Gillian Welch – “Didn’t I”

Give Gillian Welch a 12-bar blues and she will inevitably work a miracle.

18. The Avalanches (feat. Leon Bridges) – “Interstellar Love

In December, the electro-pastiche virtuosos The Avalanches released its enchanting third LP, and it’s heavily influenced by the love story of astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/creative director Ann Druyan, who worked together on NASA’s 1977 Voyager Interstellar Project. On “Interstellar Love,” the group uses a soothing Alan Parsons Project sample to create a nurturing cocoon of synths, which slowly launches into an exhilarating expanse, the voice of Leon Bridges showing us the way to romantic transcendence.

17. Jessie Ware – “Soul Control” 

An undeniable “Two of Hearts” synth line brings us behind the velvet rope at an ’80s discotheque, where the chorus froths over like champagne.

16. Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”

A year after crafting the best album of 2019, Bill Callahan still had more to give: driving newlyweds around in his limo and reflecting on the universality of marriage, all while doing his best Johnny Cash impression.

15. Kylie Minogue – “Say Something”

Ray of Sunshine #1: Pop legend Kylie Minogue made a sparkling, return-to-form album called Disco this year. Ray of Sunshine #2: Its lead single healed through dance music in classic Kylie fashion – “Baby, in an endless summer, we can find our way.”

14. Fat Tony – “Je Ne Sais Quoi” 

This Houston rapper does a better job describing his own song than I ever could: “This beat has a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi / With a quality much like the dust from a star.”

13. Carly Rae Jepsen – “This Love Isn’t Crazy”

Per usual, Carly Rae Jepsen’s B sides were catchier and sweeter and more emotionally authentic than most artists’ A sides in 2020.

12. Soakie – “Boys On Stage”

The next time you hear a Democratic man talk about the value of pragmatism, drown him out with this ferocious neo-riot-grrrl assault.

11. Charli XCX – “Claws”

This frayed, homemade electro-pop love song had me dancing in my living room with tears in my eyes.

10. TOPS – “I Feel Alive”

I think Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage is criminally underrated. And if this lovestruck air balloon ride of a song is any indication, there’s a Montreal soft-pop band that agrees with me.

9. John K. Samson – “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World”

The former Weakerthans frontman uses sports metaphors to confess his death wish for our 45th president, over gentle, sympathetic guitar.

8. Kamaiyah (ft. J. Espinosa) – “Get Ratchet”

Four years after dropping one of the best rap albums of the decade, Kamaiyah was back with authority in 2020. And so were ominously funky minor-key piano chords. And extended scratch solos. And the feeling that hip hop could re-energize the world.

7. Run the Jewels ft. Gangsta Boo – “Walking in the Snow”

Black people are murdered by police so often, a rapper can write lyrics about a specific atrocity and chances are it’ll apply to others by the time the track drops. Like on the ominous synth-funk hailstorm “Walking in the Snow,” where Killer Mike connects the dots between the American education system, criminal justice system, and the destruction of Black lives with chilling precision and fulminating passion.

6. Moses Sumney – “Cut Me”

A breathtaking, falsetto-streaked, prismatic burst of R&B artistry that fills the D’Angelo-sized hole in my heart.

5. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”

When Thundercat’s dropped this adorably goofy R&B come-on as an advance single before his album’s April release date, is was an early glimpse of an especially fruitful spring.

4. Laura Marling – “For You”

At some point in 2020, I started putting little talismans on my dining room table, the place that had become my main workstation (and Dungeons & Dragons dice-rolling surface). They were little gifts and notes from my wife, whose job still required her to go out in the world every day. It wasn’t until I heard “For You” that I realized what I was doing. “I keep a picture of you / Just to keep you safe,” Laura Marling sings over a lullaby landscape of light hums and strums, appealing to anyone whose heart resides in someone else’s body.

3. Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) – “W.A.P.”

Yes, the world’s reaction to “W.A.P.” included some tired old sexist pearl-clutching from conservative politicians and Fox News types. Yes, it’s annoying that two women rapping about their sexual prowess is still a headline-making event. (Men will be rapping about their boners until the mountains crumble into the sea.) But “W.A.P.” absolutely deserved this level of global attention – because it’s an ebullient feat of pop craftsmanship. Over a three-note bass rumble and an instantly iconic loop of the 1992 Frank Ski house track “Whores In This House,” two of the best rappers alive pack as many hilarious innuendos as possible into three minutes – staking their claim as peerless artists, making it clear that there’s no shame in consensual sex, and bringing some much-needed joy to the world.

2. Waxahatchee – “Lilacs”

“And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t get anywhere good without you,” admits Katie Crutchfield on this instant country-folk classic. Over a spare, radiant arrangement of guitar, organ and snare-rim clicks, the songwriter uses the fragrant, short-lived blossom of its title as a metaphor, not to dwell on mortality, but to drum up the courage to acknowledge the beauty that’s right in front of us: “I need your love too.”

1. Bob Dylan – “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”

A year ago, back when traveling was still a thing, I took a trip to Hawaii with my wife. We got a place in the middle of the jungle that seemed created for the purpose of sitting down, unwinding, and appreciating how beautiful our world can be. For 10 days I was able to look up from the pages of a novel and see blooms of impossible brightness, banyan trees reaching to the sky like the hands of giants, and the ocean in the distance, conducting its prehistoric symphony. Pretty much immediately, we started talking about retiring there. It was a place where we could rest in peace.

A few months later, Bob Dylan told the world about his idea of heaven on earth – an island in the Florida Keys that’s famous for attracting 20th century literary geniuses to its shores. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is a hazy dreamworld of a nine-minute ballad, its clean, reverberating guitars and gently brushed snares exemplifying how time slows to a crawl when you’re in your favorite place. In his weary, 79-year-old voice, Dylan takes us down unexpected avenues on every verse, tuning in to an old broadcast from Radio Luxembourg, pointing out Truman Capote’s old house, making sure we don’t miss the gardens overflowing with hibiscus flowers, orchid trees and bougainvillea.

But this isn’t some cryptic, “Desolation Row”-style lyrical puzzle-box. On the choruses, Dylan makes his intentions as clear as a Caribbean tide pool, sighing with audible contentment about how this island makes him feel:

Key West is the place to be
If you’re looking for immortality
Key West is paradise divine
Key West is fine and fair
If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there
Key West is on the horizon line


As the music slowly fades, the impact of what just happened washes over us. One of the least transparent artists in American history – who I have never seen actually speak to an audience beyond begrudgingly introducing his band – was singing, openly and earnestly, about where he wants his sun to set. I can only hope my last wishes will be so clear.

New Songs to Quarantine To, July 2020

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There is some telling symmetry on my list of the best songs from the past month. Two tracks openly wish death to an immoral man. Two others fantasize about falling in love using amusement park themes. All of them resonated with me during a time defined by crimes against humanity and a yearning for intimacy. It’s a wicked world, but it can’t stop us from singing.

1. John K. Samson – “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World”

The former Weakerthans frontman uses sports metaphors to confess his death wish for our president, over gentle, sympathetic guitar.

2. Angel Du$t – “Turn Off the Guitar”

This side project for members of the hardcore bands Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice has become an unexpected pop juggernaut – “Turn Up the Guitar” is their boppiest effort yet.

3. Zara Larsson – “Love Me Land”

Love is an amusement park on this gobsmacked electro-pop earworm.

4. Aminé (feat. Young Thug) – “Compensating”

“It’s hard to admit that I’ve made my bed,” this Portland, OR, rapper shares on this track, where a sprightly marimba loop is as refreshing as the artist’s ability to accept blame.

5. The Chicks – “Tights On My Boat”

Natalie Maines delivers a viciously cathartic kiss-off to her trifling ex-husband, over wink-and-a-smile acoustic strumming: “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m gone?”

6. Sylvan Esso – “Ferris Wheel”

Here’s another addictive summertime amusement park romance jam, this one literally pining for the chance to make out at the top of a ferris wheel on a hot August night.

7. Black Thought – “Thought vs Everybody”

In the same month we said goodbye to one of the founding members of The Roots – the perennially underrated rapper Malik B – his old foil Black Thought dropped an intense, chorus-less rap exercise that makes me believe he could battle the world and win.

8. Widowspeak – “Plum”

How is it that a simple chord progression, strummed in just such a way, can make me want to go for a drive in the country? This song was made for watching rolling fields go by, and feeling grateful for every one.

9. Kylie Minogue – “Say Something”

Ray of Sunshine #1: Pop legend Kylie Minogue has made an album called Disco. Ray of Sunshine #2: Its lead single heals through dance music in classic Kylie fashion – “Baby, in an endless summer, we can find our way.”

10. Pallbearer – “Forgotten Days”

The progressive doom cosmonauts in Pallbearer have returned with a new single, with the kind of giant, lumbering riff that could casually destroy your town.

11. Bill Callahan – “Another Song”

Bill Callahan just keeps on reveling in romantic domesticity, and it just keeps on making me cry: “As the shadows of the leaves on the wall / Grow and dissolve / Almost in time to our chests’ rise and fall / As we lay on the bed wanting for nothing at all.”

June’s Bestest Songs

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Here are my favorite tracks from June 2019, a time when I would usually chase those delicious clicks and list my Songs of the Summer. But nobody ever clicked. It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s fine! It’s fine. I don’t need you anyhow. JUST WATCH ME NOT CARE.

1. Prince – “Sex Shooter”

This never-before-heard demo of Purple Rain-era Prince, laying down a song he would give to Apollonia 6 to perform in his movie, is as excellent as you’d hope – a pop-funk workout so erotically charged, even the puns are sexy.

2. Sleater-Kinney – “Hurry On Home”

“Disconnect me from my bones,” pleads Carrie Brownstein on this lustful synth-rock scorcher, foregoing the “you up?” routine in favor of complete emotional transparency.

3. Goldlink (ft. Haile) – “Yard”

This chameleonic DC rapper made this list last month by applying his sinuous flow to an Afropop groove. Here, he does it with dancehall, eradicating bad vibes like a sonic exorcist.

4. Kim Petras – “Clarity”

Shimmering, flex-laden 2019 pop meets Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door.”

5. Nicki Minaj – “Megatron”

The legend returns with her best single in five years, an island-inflected banger that plays to all her strengths, leaving the scents of rum and Mercedes leather in the air.

6. Hatchie – “Her Own Heart”

An Alternative Nation dream-pop ballad that sounds like The Cranberries getting The Bends.

7. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib (feat. Anderson .Paak) – “Giannis” 

I’m still reeling from seeing Anderson .Paak perform back in May. And his gliding croon and formidable bars are perfectly suited to this twinkling groove from Madlib. But that doesn’t stop the Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs from outshining them both.

8. Lucy Dacus – “Forever Half Mast”

“Yes you’re evil but you’re not that bad,” goes the chorus to Lucy Dacus’s July 4th-inspired single. Over rich Americana strumming, Dacus nails the guilt of being from the richest, most damaging nation on earth, and loving it all the same.

9. Zara Larsson – “All the Time”

At first, Zara Larsson’s latest single feels like a swing at the Song of the Summer crown.  “Summertime and I’m caught in the feeling,” she sings over the roboticized, irresistible mantra, “From the breaking of the day to the middle of night.” But this isn’t about partying at all.

10. Bill Callahan – “What Comes After Certainty”

Magic is for rom-coms. The real shit, the chills-up-your-spine shit, is knowing, without a doubt, that you have found your person.