What a year! While the music industry suffered in so many major ways and many of the long-standing promoters and venues we’ve come to love will sadly not make it through these trying times, there were glimmers of hope. Musicians and musician-friendly companies banded together to minimize losses as we get through a devestating pandemic. From Bandcamp Fridays to the myriad live stream concerts that have popped over the last six months, musicians have proven to be among the most innovative people in the world. In addition to finding ways to squeeze the very little amount of income out of being amazing artists, they’ve also released inspiring art. So many factors have brought us to this point – perhaps it was like Amanda Palmer said, a Trump presidency was going to “make punk rock great again” and it just took a couple years, but 2020 was one of the best years for music in recent memory. From metal to pop to punk, folk and hip-hop, so many musicians transcended their circumstances to bring us the galvanizing, soothing, emotionally-resonant and in some cases, just plain fun songs that defined the year. Here is our take on the best songs of 2020.
50. Alestorm – “Treasure Chest Party Quest”
Nothing celebrates the glorious excess and debauchery of pirate metal like “Treasure Chest Party Quest.”
49. Pvris – “Dead Weight”
Alternative pop trio Pvris’s song “Death of Me” acknowledges their shift to electro-synthpop and sings of love gone toxic.
48. The Weeknd – “Blinding Lights”
With an incredibly catchy synth lead, The Weeknd has delivered one of his most memorable melodies yet.
47. Two Minutes to Late Night – “Dare To Be Stupid”
Two Minutes to Late Night’s cover of Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” is a fun (and loud) smorgasbord of different voices from the metal world, including members of Khemmis, Mutoid Man, Thou and more.
46. Tobacco with Trent Reznor – “Babysitter”
This collaboration between the abrasive electronic artist and the influential Nine Inch Nails frontman is a feat of organized chaos.
45. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”
The campiest, tongue-in-cheek song of the year that also contains a latent lesson in seduction.
44. Mura Masa with Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice – “Teenage Headache Dreams”
Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell joins forces with Mura Masa to create a dreamy, nostalgic ode to simpler times.
43. Chet Faker – “Low”
With a perfect blend of funk, R&B and electronic, “Low” is a total vibe you can’t help but feel good listening to.
42. King Buzzo with Trevor Dunn – “Housing, Luxury, Energy”
Raw, hearty and haunting ode within the darkness of civilization. Despite its sparse, acoustic-based arrangement “Housing, Luxury, Energy” is as heavy as any Melvins track.
41. Mark Lanegan – “Bleed All Over”
Synthy and continuous, “Bleed All Over” uses its power to flip into a darker track.
40. Dirty Projectors – “Overlord”
Dirty Projectors single “Overlord” starts with a jumble of instruments that quickly becomes several masterful harmonies ringing in each ear. Sweet and upbeat , the lyrics make you stop and consider what is being sung, giving the song layers, making it anything but simple.
39. Run The Jewels – “Ju$t”
Blends a caustic verse from Zack De La Rocha and a subversive pop hook from Pharrell, making the perfect amalgam with El-P and Killer Mike’s progressive lyricism.
38. Torres – “Last Forest”
Torres blesses us with the modern-day industrial love song “Forest.” It features lyrics like “Now something jogs the memory / That I loved you repeatedly…Been choosing you for centuries” accompanied by a haunting guitar riff and cosmic swells. The song creeps up on you, becoming a total powerhouse at the close.
37. Deftones – “Urantia”
“Urantia” opens with a metallic riff, shaking the veins of those who are listening. It moves into a melodic verse before the cruchy riff shows up before a dreamy chorus.
36. Myrkur – “Ella”
Scandinavian culture and enchanting melody are heard through the instrumentation while Amalie Bruun uses her powerful vocals to sing a beautiful folk song.
35. Jeff Rosenstock – “Old Crap”
The sheer honesty of the song made it a standout of the year. That is also due to the pure emotion of Rosenstock’s voice and the shift from lo-fi acoustic to breakneck electric guitar and a horn-assisted conclusion.
34. Hum – “Shapeshifter”
Epic and breathtaking. The simplistic yet atmospheric arrangement of “Shapeshifter” evokes a heartfelt sense of nostalgia. One of the best masterpieces that Hum has ever crafted.
33. Gorillaz with Peter Hook and Georgia – “Aries”
Taking clear inspirations from classic New Order with Peter Hook’s distinct bass playing and the nostalgic synths, “Aries” manages to honor the past without relying too heavily on it.
32. Tricky – “Fall Please”
“Fall Please” encapsulates deep eccentric house and dub with fitting emotional bedroom vocals from Marta Zlakowska.
31. Sofi Tukker and Gorgon City – “House Arrest”
A song that showcases the power of vocals as an instrument. “House Arrest” presents an ambient, dancey collaboration between Gorgon City and Sofi Tukker that comes together swiftly.
30. Black Thought with Killer Mike, Pusha T, Swizz Beatz – “Good Morning”
The ultimate wake-up call condensed into a concise three-minute banger complete with booming bass battery and unstoppable flows in which every line is a rude awakening while an impossible amount of truths stack.
29. Touché Amoré with Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra – “Limelight”
“Limelight” is emotional, sophisticated and valuable. Those are just a few adjectives that can be used to describe this masterfully executed song. The complexity of emotions in the song is easy to relate to and that’s why it finds a home in every listener’s heart. A true highlight of the post-hardcore genre.
28. System of a Down – “Protect The Land”
System of a Down finally releases their first new song in 15 years. “Protect The Land” is an honest song that speaks to the the members’ feelings towards the issue of humanity in the Republic of Artsakh. This song encourages listeners to learn about the injustice and human rights violations that exists in a region under attack.
27. Evanescence – “Wasted on You”
Amy Lee’s heavy vocal performance brings high strung emotions, singing about her feelings over a hard-hitting rock backdrop, which contributes to Lee’s bold honesty.
26. Christine and the Queens – “People, I’ve been sad”
French singer and songwriter Christine and the Queens brings to light her recent emotions in a bilingual piece with a steady, casual drum beat. Christine speaks directly to the listener with her second person lyrics, telling the tale of loneliness and missed opportunities and experiences in a world facing a global pandemic.
25. The Avalanches with Denzel Curry, Tricky and Sampha The Great – “Take Care In Your Dreaming”
Taking Denzel Curry’s thoughtful raps, Tricky’s ethereal chorus and Sampha The Great’s impressive rap delivery, “Take Care In Your Dreaming” is an otherworldly standout of We Will Always Love You. Simultaneously heartfelt and lovelorn, the song manages to capture the emotional tension brought on by love and loss.
24. HAIM – “Gasoline”
HAIM deserves more and on Women In Music Pt. III cut “Gasoline” they aren’t afraid to ask. Danielle Haim’s vocals glide beautifully over breakbeat-like drums and earthy guitars, tapping into an unapologetic and deeply held desire for genuine, unabated and straightforward romantic satisfaction.
23. Night Club – “Miss Negativity”
mxdwn favorites Night Club return with another stunning banger on their first single from Die Die Lullabye, “Miss Negativity.” Don’t let the title fool you; this song revels in the darkness and demands your presence on the dance floor. Lead singer Emily Kavanaugh weaves a mired-in-sorrow pop hook until it’s layered with a heavily effect-laden counterpoint to bring the song home.
22. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist with Benny the Butcher – “Frank Lucas”
Named after the well-known American drug trafficker Frank Lucas, emcees Freddie Gibbs and Benny the Butcher hop on the haunting beat delivering lines about their own experience on the streets. The production, courtesy of The Alchemist, emphasizes the intensity that comes with being involved in gangs and street life.
21. Crippled Black Phoenix – “Cry of Love”
Crippled Black Phoenix has made a career in the realm of dark tunes. “Cry of Love” very much fits that mold, with some added bite to boot. Justin Greaves, the only original member of the collective, creates a grandiose sound, equal parts soaring hard rock and isolated beauty for one of his best songs yet. Ryan Patterson of Fotocrime and Coliseum provides the song’s vocals.
20. Charli XCX – “anthems”
Proving that Charli XCX’s still got it even during lockdown, “anthems” should be played in every rager from Santa Monica to Queens once the country truly reopens. From the thunderous synths that create its main melody to Charli XCX’s ethereal vocals, “anthems” is true to its name.
19. Steve Earle and the Dukes – “Black Lung”
West Virginia and the rest of the Appalachians have been the subject of many patronizing portraits, so Steve Earle’s vision feels so raw in comparison. On an album inspired by a 2010 explosion that killed 29, “Black Lung” stands out as the most devastating. Over cacophonous fiddles and guitars, Earle’s hoarse bellowing soundtracks the cyclical nature of a mining town that no one can escape due to the titular disease that ravages entire families. What could easily be defensive or condescending is deftly turned into something tragic and sympathetic and it’s the perfect answer to the question, “Why don’t they just leave?”
18. Mrs. Piss – “Downer Surrounded by Uppers”
Even though the song is only two minutes long, “Downer Surrounded by Uppers” by Mrs. Piss uses every moment to deliver an emotional, aggressive punk rock song filled with riffs. Right from the start, the guitar is present and sets the vibe of the piece, but it’s Chelsea Wolfe’s vocals that make the song vulnerable and captivates the fan’s ears. Her groggy voice mixed with wailing screams absorbs people’s attention and the build-up to the fading scream at the end packs a punch. The song carries through it the grittiness and impactfulness of Mrs. Piss’ Self-Surgery.
17. Killer Be Killed – “Dream Gone Bad”
“Dream Gone Bad” sounds like a usually furious band coming back in full force with a refined palette, especially considering how refined the lineup already is, comprising of bands as diverse yet complementary as Mastodon, Soulfy, Converge, and many, many more. The guitar layers and parts, played by Max Cavalera himself, remain simple yet bone-crushing and sit beautifully on top of Ben Koller’s virtuosic metal drumming, which encapsulates the rest of the album to no end.
16. Death Valley Girls – “Under the Spell of Joy”
“Under the Spell of Joy” is the epoch of a band reaching their promise. As the title track from their illuminating third album, it serves as a mission statement for the entire record, a true revelation of what this band is destined to become. The song opens with a hypnotic chant, transforming into a sinewy proto-punk groove augmented by psyched-out sax riffs before ending with blissful punk rock. The song is the perfect encapsulation of what Bonnie Bloomgarden set out to create with the earliest Death Valley Girls songs.
15. John Prine – “I Remember Everything”
As the last song recorded by legendary singer-songwriter John Prine before his death this past April, this acoustic number ranks up there with Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” in their overwhelming sense of finality. “Hurt” goes for pure anguish, while “I Remember Everything”is more reflective and ultimately accepting. It’s a clear-eyed reflection on the beauty inherent in everything, from the big and important to the small and mundane. Prine could not have known this song would be his last but that context makes the song all the more defiantly hopeful as Prine faces death with his most precious asset, his memories of his music, partner and other treasures, in tow.
14. Little Simz – “might bang, might not”
Coming off the of quarantined inspired EP, Drop 6, “might bang, might not” brings a punchy and fired up bassline. Produced by Dreamville’s Kal Banks, the siren blaring beat matches perfectly against Simz’ effortless flow. Despite being created in a difficult and bleak time, Simz lets listeners know in the track that she’s “back on her bullshit.” Ready to bring audiences the sounds she’s been crafting during the break, “might bang, might not,” delivers excitement and liveliness we so desperately needed.
13. Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am”
Billie Eilish rose to fame on the back of darker, intense and almost frightening music and that is a niche she seems happy to continue to fill. “Therefore I Am” is a shot at those who try to use her name to get popularity without actually being her friend. The flip on the titular quote in the song’s chorus is well done, and while it would be jumping the gun to call Billie Eilish the modern Descartes, she certainly does well with thought-provoking and open-ended philosophical statements. “Therefore I Am” is an assertion of self for both Eilish and her career, showing that she’s got serious staying power in the industry after her debut album last year.
12. U.S. Girls – “Overtime”
Moody and noisy, “Overtime” of Meg Remy’s U.S. Girls solo project 2020 LP, Heavy Light embodies a powerful sensation that was presented at the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost like a shout into the night before descending into the void of the pandemic.
11. Boris – “Anti-Gone”
There’s something about Boris that never seems to disappoint and can always manage to keep their fans guessing. As a trio that has no problem taking huge risks with their sound, each gamble for them has ended up a gain. Announcing a Bandcamp-only album was already something of note, but the heavily hardcore punk/metal stylings of NO are a whole other conversation to be had. Specifically, “Anti-Gone” takes on the quick-paced, reckless attitude of bands like Motorhead or Judas Priest without fear. Considering how much of Boris’s recent catalog has been more noisily ambient, the drone-y doom meets punk meets heavy rock and roll of “Anti-Gone,” and NO as a whole is the best thing to have come out of quarantine.
10. Dua Lipa – “Don’t Start Now”
This song has two real stars: Dua Lipa and the bassline. The former is right in her element with lyrics about heartbreak and moving on, not looking back, but the funky groove being laid down by the latter pushes this track above and beyond. The two weave in and out of the spotlight, synchronizing well with one another. It also doesn’t hurt that they’re assisted by some disco-style strings every now and then, and the bass’s prominence only serves to make the sections where it drops away more impactful. Dua Lipa builds to an intense peak with more instruments and complex harmonic lines being added as the song progresses. Once it hits that final chorus, the buildup from the entire song is released in a show of pure catchy pop energy. During everything that was going on this year, it was really nice to have tracks like this one that brought a bit of levity and fun to life through music.
9. Laura Marling – “Held Down”
The acoustic stylings of Laura Marling’s “Held Down” has the incredible ability to sound nostalgic for a moment that we’ve never lived. Her vocals are soft yet powerful, perfectly weaved into a classic ’70s melody. The hook of the song grabs on to you and doesn’t let you go.
8. Austra – “Anywayz”
The track alternates between passages of longing for the past (“Come back, I want to feel you”) and peering into the future (We’ll figure it out / But what if we don’t? / And the world keeps turning anyways) as Stelmanis sings about her divided mind. Grainy synths and piano hits form the musical foundation of the track’s verses, while energetic percussion and a wash of layered synthesizers handle the chorus. As the final haunting vocal harmony fades out, the listener is left with a moment of solace. Take a risk or two– everything else will continue on, anyways.
7. Heartless Bastards – “Revolution”
A political and social map to the way the world should be through the Heartless Bastards’ eyes, “Revolution” tops the list in terms of this particular band’s societal awareness pieces. The Bastards take on some of the world’s largest problems such as racism, false information, materialism, self-hate and poverty. The beginning of the song opens only with duel guitars opening up the stage for the audience to really listen to their words. They call for change, the first few stanzas of their song acting as their thesis—what needs to be changed and the reasons so many suffer. After this has been established, the Heartless Bastards repeat the words “The revolution is in your mind” 16 times. Akin to Dorothy speaking, “there’s no place like home” to leave the “Oz” realm, the song then opens up to new instruments and new ideas, taking the listener into another musical dimension. The dreariness and wonder of the first half are replaced by brightness and statement of a world without evil.
6. Bully – “Where to Start”
Every artist seemed to fancy a crack at quarantine-appropriate music in 2020. From the uplifting to the damning, tracks about isolation and a lack of connection were fairly ubiquitous. But perhaps the best summary of 2020 was the refrain of this tune: “I don’t know where to start / I don’t know where to start with you.” Equal parts angry and hopeless, the standout from Bully’s third LP captured the spirit of the year with the signature venom associated with the act. But, with the clear influence of John Congleton, Alicia Bognanno’s energy transcended the usual Bully vivacity. Driven by a strong bass riff and buoyed by sweet harmonies, “Where to Start” sounded far more lighthearted than the rest of Bully’s catalog. And, coupled with typically ferocious guitar licks and a singalong chorus, “Where to Start” played like one of the more fun rock songs of the year.
5. Puscifer – “Apocalyptical”
Topics revolving around disinformation and social unrest have been going on for decades and are still pertinent to our society in 2020. As the coronavirus cases are increasing exponentially, some groups of people still retain strong antagonism toward authorities, such as government officials, health workers and other agencies and communities that are working tenaciously to subdue the global pandemic. This brings us to the song “Apocalyptical” from Existential Reckoning by the band Puscifer. While the song sounds cheerful with its catchy rhythms, the lyrics deal with serious subject matters. “Concrete conclusions be damned / Be damned, dumb, dumb / Go on, moron, ignore the evidence / They won’t believe you until it’s far too late.” With sarcasm, these lyrics criticize tyrannical authorities or professionals who willingly propagate falsified information and the masses who accept and spread unverified information despite being presented with evidence contrary to their claims. Ignorance is bliss but also deadly to those who are not. Thus, the chaos and societal destruction that ensue from ignorance ultimately lead to the apocalyptic nature of our society. “Apocalyptical” is a noteworthy work of art that is fused with creative vocal harmonizations and rhythms that juxtapose remarkably with its depressing lyrics.
4. Greg Puciato – “Evacuation”
Somehow one of the more normal songs on his absolutely incredible debut solo record, Child Solider: Creator of God, “Evacuation” blends Puciato’s rejection of genre and stylistic boundaries and rules with his prodigious know-how at being good at everything he does. Fans of his musical genesis, metalcore icons The Dillinger Escape Plan and his goth-pop group, The Black Queen, would find “Evacuation” particularly appealing, combining his absolutely insane harsh vocals with his sincere craftsmanship and ability to write a catchy, interesting song.
3. Ulver – “Russian Doll”
We’ve noted that no one has managed to evolve themselves quite like Ulver. Their latest record, Flowers of Evil, only serves to reinforce that assertion. Of all the tracks on that record, from the eminently danceable “Machine Guns and Peacock Feathers” to the unnervingly synthetic “Little Boy,” “Russian Doll” most effectively represents the culmination of their evolution. Featuring an unmistakably ‘80s synth pattern, the song sounds like walking along the length of the Berlin wall. The cool synths practically beg you to swim in a neon and chrome future, but there’s always a sense of menace and grit lingering in the corners. It’s like a fleck of dirt sullying the glistening red sheen of a brand new Ferrari.
The lyrics only play further into this gritty reality that Ulver has crafted for the listener. It focuses on a young woman who “was born in 1989. In a hidden corner by the White Sea.” She ends up “running with the wolves…[a] two of hearts… crossing the line.” Whatever happens to our unnamed protagonist, it’s clear that her love and beauty only brought her misfortune. But as the title “Russian Doll” implies, there is always something a layer deeper, making it the rare song that rewards repeated, intentional listens both sonically and lyrically.
2. Fiona Apple – “Under the Table”
Fetch The Bolt Cutters features several stand-out songs that draw the listener in with powerful melodies and lyrics that beg for multiple listens. “Under The Table” is one of those songs and is both humorous and powerful as she sings that she “won’t shut up” when she’s “kicked under the table” at a stuffy dinner party she didn’t even want to attend. The spoken lyrics paint a highly visual story of Apple attending this upscale party where the wine is expensive and the conversation topics are enraging. She feels out of place and suffocated, repeatedly singing, “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up / I won’t shut up” with the counter melody “I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me” in the chorus. Regardless, she goes with her gut and calls out a particularly smug guest with the lyrics, “I’d like to buy you a pair of pillow-soled hiking boots / To help you with your climb / Or rather, to help the bodies that you step over, along your route / So they won’t hurt like mine.” The chorus continues to build, releasing into rounds of the counter melody as the piano chords grow louder and darker and rattling percussion instruments are added.
1. Run The Jewels with Gangsta Boo – “walking in the snow”
Our Song of the Year may at first glance appear to be an unassuming deep album track. Anyone familiar with Run the Jewels will know they often stash their most politically relevant and subversive lines within the many non-single tracks they have released over the course of four albums. This year is no different and with “walking in the snow,” they may have penned their most socially relevant song yet.
“walking in the snow” falls almost perfectly at the midway point of the jaw-dropping LP that is 2020’s RTJ4. “walking in the snow” is easily the most impactful with its hard hitting and ultra-relevant lyrics. The song opens with a blown-out retro garage-rock riff, before El-P enters with his first verse. At this point his delivery is laid back, giving the song a bit of a subdued feel – listener beware, this song is about to flip on you.
First comes Three 6 Mafia member Gangsta Boo to deliver the hook, which gradually increases in intensity throughout the song. El-P’s second verse blends right in with the first hook and it’s here he delivers the first lyrical dagger: “Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group / So when that cage is done with them and you still poor, it come for you.” The song quickly reveals itself to be about the divisions everyday people put between themselves, with folks that are just barely higher on the totem pull pushing and shoving those below them towards the bottom. El-P takes a stab at the religious right before bowing out for Killer Mike’s somehow more-devestating verse.
And then Killer Mike enters the track and drops the verse of the year, released on record just days after George Floyd was murdered – choked to death – in the streets of Minneapolis by a police officer. He sets up the delivery by pointing out the unfairness in America’s education system, how “… they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest / And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me,” all over a wobbly beat. Then he devestates with this haymaker: “And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free / And 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.’”
Featured Image Photo Credit: Raymond Flotat