In a year like 2020, it’s hard to know exactly how to soundtrack the constant barrage of ugly headlines—whether to buoy low spirits caused by the dreaded phrase “new single-day record for cases” with over-the-top dance music or to drown out more news of “no stimulus checks” with downcast songs that cut directly to the core of your grief. In either case, the past twelve months have provided plenty of stunning singles spanning—or neglecting—genre to convey the universal joys and miseries of the present moment, from warped, doomy shoegaze to conservative-enraging, sexed-up rap, militant anti-police tirades to neon-drenched earworms celebrating the gift that is ’80s synth pop.
The ten tracks we picked as our favs represent the highs and lows of the year, either prodding deep into the mid-pandemic global consciousness or doing everything they can to forget it entirely. Under the conditions that YG and Nipsey’s “FDT” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” didn’t, in fact, come out this year, here are our picks for the best singles of 2020.
10. Nothing, “Say Less”
This lead single from The Great Dismal—which came with the Philly shoegaze band’s album announcement back in September—got listeners excited for the band’s fourth LP, and with good reason. “Say Less” previewed a more layered, dynamic version of Nothing, one more inspired by the heavy sounds of My Bloody Valentine than anything the band had released before. Opening with a sample from a video of an eccentric, wide-eyed woman proclaiming the joys of shopping, the song inhabits a weird, noisy darkness while Domenic Palermo sings barely intelligible lyrics that paint a dreary scene: “Your head, it’s spun / I’m not the one / On and on and on / Exhausted gums / Say less, I’m numb.”
Palermo’s voice is tired as usual, sharing casual revelations like an exhausted poet. It’s as bleak as it is immersive, dragging the listener into its grey embrace. The monotony of life is inescapable, and whether or not Palermo has accepted that doesn’t matter. He knows it, cleverly leaving us with his final words, before he gets swept back up into the void: “It’s on and on and on and…” — Danielle Chelosky
Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B have forever changed macaroni in a pot. Earlier this year, the iconic duo broke the internet with their proud pussy anthem “WAP.” In a world where bragging about a man’s credentials is offensively normal, Cardi and Megan are widening the canon for women to be sexually empowered. The song’s backbone—the sample from Frank Ski’s “There’s Some Whores in This House”—is the ideal backdrop as the two own their desire to be freaky and hold their power in the bedroom. Both rappers deliver their lines with varied ferociousness, owning their spots at the top of the food chain.
Over a mischievous bass drop, “WAP” addresses female desire with playful raunchiness: “I want you to touch that lil’ dangly thing that swing in the back of my throat,” Cardi snaps at one point, wielding horniness like a weapon. Their vivid analogies, turning mundane items into puppets for foreplay, received massive conservative backlash. One congressional candidate even claimed, after he “accidentally” heard the single, that he wanted to bath his ears in holy water. “WAP” not only supplied us with an iconic earworm, but widely exposed double standards and male sexual suppression. Even the “edited version” of “WAP” is a beautiful example of how the attempt at silencing these two bold women only made their sexual force much more potent. — Margaret Farrell
It’s been over half a year since the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and, as predicted, everything has gone back to a (post-pandemic) state of normalcy after our local PDs beat, bloodied, and blinded those of us brave enough to risk death at the hands of unyielding police cruisers or an unchecked virus in order to let our political leaders know how we feel about the literal get-out-of-jail-free card that is a police badge. If ever there was a moment of injustice that felt like something buried deep in the annals of history books, it was this one in which we knew national law enforcement would continue to make fatal mistakes with very few repercussions for those with their finger on the trigger.
I’m sure we’re on the cusp of plenty of documentaries analyzing this period in a little more depth, but the first and most prominent cultural moment that emerged from the embers of a flaming police van was Denzel Curry and Terrace Martin’s posse cut “Pig Feet,” which features a Daylyt verse to match Denzel’s intensity, a G Perico interlude, and raging sax from Martin’s Dinner Party teammate Kamasi Washington. “Someone asked, how do I feel?” Martin notes on the track’s SoundCloud page. “I told them hurt, fearless, angry, aware and fully ready to protect me, my family & my people at all cost. I got together with Black men that felt the same way and created a work of truth.” — Mike LeSuer
7. Sufjan Stevens, “America”
Here’s an unexpected confession from Sufjan Stevens: “I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe.” No, the famously devout Christian has not lost his religion in The Ascension’s lead single, but instead his faith in another beloved entity. For years, Sufjan retained his depressive optimist stance about America. It was a nation of poverty and hardship, a birthing ground for serial killers, but it was also a bucolic backdrop to a troubled childhood, a home state bursting with beauty, and a promised land for hopeful youth. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours.
In his middle age—amidst a celebrity-obsessed culture, embarrassing government, and a worsening pandemic—Sufjan has shed his optimism. The closing statement on his self-appointed “bitchiest” album yet is an indictment of his home. “I have loved you like a dream,” he mourns over ambient synths and crackling electronics, “I have kissed your lips like a Judas in heat.” Such a betrayal is heartbreaking: his signature religious imagery framed like a jilted lover’s confession in therapy. A once wide-eyed artist curdled into a curmudgeon. Can anyone blame him? — Connor Duffey
6. Romy, “Lifetime”
If you believe in music as a powerful tool for escapism, then the debut single from Romy Madley-Croft of The xx initially presents a challenge.“Lifetime” isn’t quite the right song for forgetting that social isolation and apocalyptic themes defined 2020: Its pre-chorus goes, “If this world comes to an end / I wanna be there with you,” and during the chorus, Romy describes being next to a person as “once in a lifetime.” But it’s not depressing in the least—instead, it’s the pinnacle of 2020’s contributions to the ever-growing realm of bubbling, effervescent synthpop.
Romy doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to bring ebullient, endlessly replayable hooks. Instead, she spins the wheels that have long driven pop’s ever-crowded car and delivers a banger absolutely destined for clubs when they finally reopen. Low-end synths that gyrate like bodies at 3 a.m. on poorly lit dancefloors, insistent percussion that hits right in the legs and hips and ass, euphoric chorus vocals, a quiet bridge that makes the final chorus an even more triumphant payoff—all the classic tools are here, and Romy executes them perfectly. “Lifetime” is a reminder that you can search for highs while commemorating lows, a 2020-ready message delivered in a pristine pop package. — Max Freedman
5. Channel Tres, “Weedman”
On his single “Weedman,” producer-singer Channel Tres plays both dealer and customer. Over funky, pounding claps and a low-riding bass, Tres travels back to a time before dispensaries were common in California. At first, he’s matter-of-fact, breaking up a Swisher, eager for his dealer to spot him some bud. But then things get tense—maybe he’s had a rough day at work. Maybe he’s going through it. Mid-song, he switches it up, taking on the persona of the titular weedman. His voice drops an octave, cool as a cucumber, to calm his anxious buyer. “Slow down, I know you need the drugs / But you know you ain’t the only one that’s tryna hit the plug.”
“Weedman” unravels like a modern drug odyssey. During the bridge, the bass falls out from under us, and we’re thrust into Tres’s consciousness. “I wanna get high, but I can’t smoke for free,” he sings. Ostensibly, it’s one of Channel Tres’s most playful tracks. But under the surface, Tres is reckoning with his teenage self. “‘I’m sixteen,’” he explained of the song’s backstory, “‘Why do I have all these problems? Why do I need to smoke weed at sixteen?’ So it was just kind of detailing that time of my life.” It’s easy to get swept up in the chugging psychedelic beats and hypnotic phone bleeps, but the dynamism of writing and singing makes it one of Tres’s best releases yet. — Margaret Farrell
4. Fiona Apple, “Shameika”
“Shameika” comes in clattering the way Hurricane Gloria hit New York when Fiona Apple was eight years old—a precursor, in a way, to a more destabilizing and insidious kind of storm that lie waiting for her in adolescence. Apple, like many, views this time period as one that remains important—and damaging—in its shaping of her identity as a grown woman: “That’s where my relationship to women started getting fucked up,” she told Vulture. “It’s awful how many memories I have with having a friend be with me and then having a more popular girl say to that friend, ‘Okay, you can be friends with Fiona or you can be friends with me. Choose.’ And I never got chosen.”
On the raucous piano-driven track, Apple recounts an experience of bullying in the cafeteria of her private school in West Harlem. Out of nowhere, an older girl came to Apple’s defense, offering just a few small words of encouragement that had lasting impact. One of Fetch the Bolt Cutter’s major themes, Apple asserts that the things that happen to us as children matter, but it’s not just the traumatic moments that stick. Important, too, are the small kindnesses we’re shown, the moments when someone who had no obligation to do so showed us some kind of warmth. “Shameika said I had potential” isn’t just a chorus; it’s a mantra. Much like Sebastian’s assessment that Apple is “a good man in a storm” or Tony’s description of her as “pissed off, funny, and warm,” it’s a reminder of her power to recall when things get rough. — Carrie Courogen
3. Christine and the Queens, “People, I’ve Been Sad”
Starting around December 2019, a cohort of people reported feeling a vague sense of doom. Shortly after, in February of this year, Christine and the Queens shared the first single off her EP La vita nuova. “It’s just that me, myself, and I / Been missing out for way too long,” she sings over the low blue flame of characteristic synths, “Forsaking things for way too long.” It suited the general wintry vibe at the time, of course, and a word from Chris is always welcome—especially when she sounds like this (melancholic, groovy).
But aside from those experiencing that sense of doom, I’m not sure anyone could have predicted just how prescient “People, I’ve been sad” would end up being. Now, lines like, “Pris au piège de quelque chose de fort” (“Trapped within something so strong”) and “Une solitude folle” (“A crazy loneliness”) stand out like heart palpitations. There’s a springiness to the song, though, a feeling of strength through heartache, that makes it palliative. — Leah Mandel
2. Perfume Genius, “On the Floor”
Mike Hadreas has said that his fifth album as Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, is an attempt to occupy and upend traditional masculinity. At first glance, “On the Floor”—Hadreas’ funkiest song to date by some margin—isn’t quite a subversion but just a classic Hadreas queer devotional. A closer look, though, reveals a deliberately rabble-rousing undercurrent.
As Hadreas sings “I pace, I run my mouth / I pray and wait / I cross out his name on the page” atop the chorus’ stop-start instrumentation, his yearning lyrics and pop highs evoke the desperation with which ’60s girl groups sang about men—roughly the opposite of traditional masculinity. Lyrics like “The rise and fall / Of his chest on me” are at once perfectly in line with the Perfume Genius catalog and wholly out of whack with what the music video’s relatively masculine, mud-covered, tanktop-and-jeans-donning Hadreas might be expected to sing. As he and someone dressed identically and covered in just as much mud dance in the vast wilderness, they make masculinity appear not violent and closed-off but beautifully earthy. That it’s impossible not to bop along is key to the subversion. — Max Freedman
1. The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights”
Leave it to Abel Tesfaye—a.k.a. The Weeknd—to launch a campaign that perfectly mirrors the horrors of 2020. “Blinding Lights” careened into pop culture consciousness like a gruesome car crash you simply can’t look away from. Clad in the now-signature red suit, face covered in blood to match it, The Weeknd zoomed into the After Hours project with “Blinding Lights,” perhaps the savviest single of his career. Where he’s been criticized for (quite successfully) invoking memories of Michael Jackson with his quivering-yet-clear falsetto, he sped headlong into the synth-washed ’80s with wry reimagining of a-ha’s eternal “Take on Me.”
Glassy synths and insistent throwback drum machine patterns powered this Frankenstein model all the way to the top of the charts. The Grammys inexplicably chose to ignore the record, putting The Weeknd in such stellar company as Led Zeppelin and Prince as artists snubbed for making some of the biggest and most influential music of their time. Undaunted, he tightened his bandages and crashed into the upcoming Super Bowl halftime show instead. Nice work if you can get it. — Scott Sterling