With live music, tours, and festivals on pause, the music scene, like all things, felt different in 2020. Still, artists pushed through and kept us thrilled, comforted, and empowered in a dark and isolating year.
The music that emerged from this era of separation still made us feel united and gave us something to experience together—whether we were dancing in our rooms (instead of crowded clubs) to Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga, celebrating the power of our sexuality through Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, or just riding out the melancholia of the moment with Phoebe Bridgers or Soccer Mommy.
The year’s best new tracks evoke nostalgia, protest, romance, and just some damn good fun, which we certainly deserve after these past 12 months. Take a listen below.
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“Savage Remix” by Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé
Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” was already a hit thanks to infectious TikTok choreography and her high-energy bars that never take a break. The only person who could have improved the track would be Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter herself—and when snippets of Beyoncé’s verses on the remix leaked ahead of its official release, the Beyhive could not contain themselves. The remix simultaneously serves as an ode to the city of Houston, the resilience of women in hip-hop, and the fact that Beyoncé is truly a superior rapper to Jay-Z. Don’t at me. —Bianca Betancourt, Assistant Digital News Editor
“Yo Perreo Sola” by Bad Bunny
Not being able to hear Bad Bunny’s standout track from YHLQMDLG live was one of the ultimate cultural travesties of 2020. Not only is the song simply a bonafide reggaeton banger, but it’s also an unexpected feminist manifesto. Bad Bunny raps of the importance of women being able to declare whether or not they want to dance with someone at a party, and to top it off, he performed the song in drag for it’s accompanying visual. “Yo Perreo Sola” singelhandedly proclaimed that machismo serves zero importance in 2020 and beyond. —B.B.
“Useless” by Omar Apollo
Some songs simply sound like a dream, and Omar Apollo’s “Useless” is one of them. Apollo composed the ethereal track with the help of fellow musician Albert Hammond Jr. (of The Strokes fame) to create a breathtaking ode to fleeting millenial romance. —B.B.
“Eternal Summer” by The Strokes
One of the few positive moments that has come out of weeks of sheltering in place is that we have a new album by The Strokes to soundtrack our way into the summer. While the last few efforts from the quintessential New York band have showcased the obviously strained relationships between the bandmates, their latest effort (almost eerily titled The New Abnormal) finally sounds like the boys are at least halfway excited to be together again. The standout track is easily “Eternal Summer”—an infectiously tempo-ed track that effortlessly melds the early millennial aughts aesthetic of their early work with Julian Casablancas’s fondness for electronic-inspired production. —B.B.
“Rewind” by Ravyn Lenae
If Ravyn Lenae’s teaser track from the latest Insecure soundtrack is a taste of her music to come, consider us ready. Lenae’s exquisite vocals float over the breezy guitar-backed track, while the 21-year-old musician subtly settles into an increasingly mature and more intriguing musical aesthetic. The buttery-smooth production reminds of R&B divas from decades past à la Toni Braxton and Aaliyah. There’s no doubt that soon enough, Lenae’s name will be associated among them and many more in her projects to come. —B.B.
“I Want War (But I Need Peace)” by Kali Uchis
Kali Uchis’s latest EP, To Feel Alive, serves as a sentimental soundtrack to the uncertainty of our world today. The ethereal track “I Want War (But I Need Peace)” details the tiring back-and-forth of a relationship that’s equal parts toxic and intoxicating. The track, along with the three other songs, are part of the quarantine-created EP and were all written, produced, and performed by Uchis herself, proving that even as the world comes to a pause, her musical creativity continues to thrive. —B.B.
“Si Veo a Tu Mamá” by Bad Bunny
Any artist who decides to sample the Brazilian classic “The Girl from Ipanema” is sure to create a hit, but when Bad Bunny remixes the bossa nova track, it becomes a prime example of where the future of urbano pop can go. The song is upbeat and danceable, but with Spanish lyrics that are sincerely heartbreaking, narrating the emotions that follow you into post-breakup life while you wonder what your ex is up to. —B.B.
“Physical” by Dua Lipa
Between the new sounds that Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, and now Dua Lipa are currently serving listeners, it seems like the heavy synth and booming bass feel of the ’80s is back in full swing. We love that with “Physical,” Dua isn’t afraid to experiment with a mainstream pop sound while also rocking avant-garde, punchy-bright looks with her accompanying videos. This high-energy track just makes us want to dance and, apparently, so does Dua. —B.B.
“Juro Que” by Rosalía
Rosalía returns to her flamenco roots with this raw and mesmerizing track. While the Catalan singer received her big break abroad by experimenting with the Caribbean sounds of reggaeton, Rosalía at her core is a flamenco singer—and she shines when she strips down the frills of pop for a more bare-boned, operatic performance, much like “Juro Que.” One doesn’t have to speak Spanish to hear the pain and heartbreak that evokes through Rosalía’s greatest instrument: her voice. —B.B.
“Lilacs” by Waxahatchee
Steeped in the band’s signature folk-tinged indie sound, “Lilacs” by Waxahatchee is a beautiful reminder that you have to put in work every single day to take care of yourself and break toxic patterns. If there ever was a year we needed this type of encouragement—in uplifting, melodic form, no less—2020 is it. —Ariana Marsh, Senior Features Editor
“Are You Even Real?” by James Blake
James Blake’s music, while ethereal and entrancing, often feels imbued in melancholy. “Are You Even Real?” breaks from that tradition and offers an impassioned proclamation of a love so bewildering it’s hard to believe it exists. Featuring a grounding piano line punctuated by bass-led percussion and strings, the heartwarming song captures the sublime beauty of total infatuation. —A.M.
Only You by Theophilus London feat. Tame Impala
A reimagining of Steve Monite’s 1984 single of the same name, “Only You” is a euphoric track about lusting after—and then getting it on with—the one you love. Melding Theophilus’s smooth vocals with Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker’s synthy, psych-rock sounds, it’s a lively track that’ll make you want to get on your feet and dance your way through the rest of this dumpster fire of a year. —A.M.
“Susie Save Your Love” by Allie X ft. Mitski
Allie X and Mitski deftly craft a tale of infatuation and unrequited love in this synth-heavy bop. The track, from Allie X’s Cape God album, follows the all too familiar woes of those unlucky enough to fall in love with a friend–who’s already in love with another. Expect the song to induce ‘80s nostalgia and an itch to hit the dance floor. —Chelsey Sanchez, Assistant Social Media Editor
“Waving, Smiling” by Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen turns lost love into a wistful lullaby in “Waving, Smiling,” one of many haunting tracks off of her 2020 album Whole New Mess. The cinematic song reminds me of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” for its folksy burble, skeletal instrumental, and meditative lyrics. But Olsen also strikes out on her own as an astute songwriter. With its optimistic refrain, “Waving, Smiling” recognizes love’s immutable return, an awareness only come by after surmounting–finally–incomprehensible grief: “I’m waving, smiling / At love forever, alive and dying.” —C.S.
“Peace” by Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift disclosed to Rolling Stone that “Peace” relays her fear of never being able to “fully achieve… normalcy” with her longtime beau, Joe Alwyn–though, one not need be a global pop star nor date a rising Hollywood actor in order to relate to the song’s universal themes. This delicate, earnest, and underrated folklore track gives shape to the anxiety that comes with falling short in a relationship and the intimacy attached to arduous love, with unforgettable lyrics like, “All these people think love’s for show / But I would die for you in secret.” —C.S.
“WORLD WE CREATED” by Giveon
The 25-year-old baritone singer creates a sensuous and sensitive journey in his debut (and already Grammy-nominated) R&B album, TAKE TIME. In “WORLD WE CREATED,” his creamy vocals take the driver’s seat, steering listeners straight into a warm and lustrous reverie. —C.S.
“Kerosene!” by Yves Tumor
No one serves raw fantasy and abstraction like Yves Tumor. On “Kerosene!” Tumor’s playing into a new, decidedly rock sound over the ambient electronic and experimental sounds listeners might be used to. Where previous years’ tracks may have slipped deep into electronic distortion, “Kerosene!” glides into a searing electric guitar solo. It’s a track that softens the usual mutations, while still offering a delightfully dark take on a romantic duet. —Natalie Maher, BAZAAR.com Contributor
“Cut Me” by Moses Sumney
In 2020, horns weren’t necessarily the instrument of choice, but as “Cut Me” begins to lean in, a horn emerges, a piano clanks, a stuttering 808 begins, and eventually something that sounds like a warped harp chimes in. It’s a seemingly chaotic instrumental overlap, yet Moses Sumney’s voice soars above all sounds. “Cut Me” is a testament to indulging in everything at once and an ode to the aural phenomenon that is Sumney’s range. —N.M.
“Qadir” by Nick Hakim
Nick Hakim’s music exists somewhere at the intersection of Tame Impala and Curtis Mayfield: a mash of sounds that rightfully romanticizes laid-back breeziness and timeless coolness. “Qadir” is plush and smooth, as Hakim pays tribute to a childhood friend who passed too soon. —N.M.
“Silly Watch” by Lil Uzi Vert
For nearly three years, Lil Uzi fans lived off nothing but Instagram-fit slideshows and scattered song snippets that were almost always left with no follow-up. But out of the flames of bad-contract embargo finally came Eternal Atake II, a record perfectly surreal enough to exist in the current moment. “Silly Watch” is one of its six opening tracks that each hit with equal-part speed, fury, and style as Uzi breathlessly works through the album’s entrance into another dimension. For three straight minutes, North Philly’s favorite rap alien relentlessly keeps his small, designer-clad shoe on the gas pedal, making a track so sinister it comes with its own artist-suggested dance move. —N.M.
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“Circle the Drain” by Soccer Mommy
“Circle the Drain” sounds like what would play in a teenager’s room after a good date in an early 2000s cult-classic high school movie. With near Hilary Duff-esque approachability, Soccer Mommy details depressive tendencies amid sing-along melodies and warm guitar strums, making for a song that is as sweet and approachable as it is cuttingly honest. —N.M.
“People, I’ve Been Sad” by Christine and the Queens
In some ways—maybe most ways—Christine and the Queens seems like an insurmountable force. Héloïse Letissier has spent the last four years rotating through identities and aliases, becoming the dominant face of otherworldly crisp, clean, and cutting modern pop music. But in 2020, she’s gone full mask off, peeking her head out with an honest confession: “It’s true that people, I’ve been sad,” she offers sweetly, before unfurling into a poetic part-English, part-French hymnal of self-realization. —N.M.
“Ungodly Hour” by Chloe x Halle
Chloe x Halle have been here. The sisters have been teeming with potential just under the surface as Beyonce’s carefully-curated, well-manicured protegees for years, but 2020’s sophomore album Ungodly Hour found the pair hitting their remarkable stride. The project’s title track is doused in funk – an impressive and perhaps unexpected groove from its electronic producers Disclosure – as the sisters exchange chirps of flirty invitations and angelic innuendos. —N.M.
“Wildfires” by SAULT
SAULT’s anonymous entrance into pop culture has been a thrilling and rewarding experiment this year. The British group has captured the rage, sadness, and power of Black existence in 2020, and then subtracted any potential celebrity by remaining an intentionally faceless entity. “Wildfires” is a song about necessary and overdue rebuilding, and the confidence and readiness behind the movement begging for it. The delivery is a convincingly steady vocal display, as a voice promises, “We will never show fear.” —N.M.
“WAKING UP DOWN” by Yaeji
Yaeji’s “WAKING UP DOWN” is a high-paced checklist of life’s daily necessities that feels as much as like the aggressive buzz of an 8 a.m. iPhone alarm as it does a substitute for the general public’s collective yearning for a night out. As Yeaji runs through a litany of mundane upkeep (waking up, hydrating, cooking), the track’s bassline acts like the SoulCycle instructor screaming in the listener’s face to get it done. It’s a deeply topical track that is endearingly honest about how hard life’s little maintenances can sometimes be. —N.M.
“Got It On Me” by Pop Smoke
The through line between 50 Cent and Pop Smoke is thick and thorough. Raised in neighboring New York boroughs and sharing the beautifully specific East Coast aural gruffness, both rappers have a sound that made them into local legends, before their larger-than-life tone brought them commercial stardom and icon status in their city.
On “Got It On Me,” the late rapper and king of New York drill interpolates his own cautionary message to suspected enemies with 50 Cent’s iconic “Many Men.” What would have been an audacious sample choice for most rookie-year rappers was actually a poetic passing of the torch from 50, who executive-produced Pop Smoke’s posthumous album Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, after Pop was tragically murdered in February. The result is a fool-proof sonic homage to an ever-lasting rap lineage. —N.M.
“I! Gits! Weary!” by KeiyaA
2020’s fog has given ample opportunity for introspection, namely the existential kind that unfurls as life’s problems mix with worldly monstrosities beyond our comprehension. “I! Gits! Weary” works through the exhaustion that’s a byproduct of thinking too hard on the powers that be, and the reckoning of what to do next. “Should I take a policy out on my tax-sponsored dissent?” the deeply promising Chicago singer KeiyaA asks, before taking a breath and questioning if it’s perhaps just the shrooms speaking. KeiyaA’s anxious questions about self-preservation manifest in an excitingly snappy, yet calm, lo-fi soul sound. —N.M.
“Aquí Yo Mando” by Kali Uchis and Rico Nasty
“Aquí Yo Mando” is 2020’s perfect storm, as Rico Nasty and Kali Uchis collaborate for an 808-intensive, part English, part Spanish trap masterpiece. Rico Nasty turns down her usual pop-punk heaviness to meet Kali Uchis in the middle, as the Colombian siren ever so slightly lets up on her baby pink aesthetic. The result is a pairing that this year truly needed. —N.M.
Hit Different by SZA feat. Ty Dolla $ign
Nearly ten years ago, in the midst of N.E.R.D.’s cocaine-drenched music video ode to socialite-level partying “Everyone Nose,” a 19-year-old SZA flashes on screen amongst a flurry of indiscernible faces. As a then-intern at Pharrell’s streetwear brand Billionaire Boys Club, SZA’s admiration for Pharrell was a seemingly one-way adulation. But in 2020, SZA stands for much more, and it seems perfectly full circle that her 2020 re-entry into the public consciousness came via the new single “Hit Different,” produced by the inimitable tag team of Pharrell and Chad Hugo.
The track keeps its foot in 2020 via a feature from the omnipresent R&B hook king Ty Dolla $ign. SZA delivers a sermon on love, lust, and self – the lyrical territory that she has owned across the latter half of the 2010s. —N.M.
“Lessons From My Mistakes … but I Lost Your Number” by Liv.e
Liv.e’s debut album Couldn’t Wait To Tell You is a soothing sort of chaos, as the Dallas singer seems to effortlessly combine a lifetime worth of influence with a diary’s worth of introspection. “Lessons From My Mistakes” sounds of faint and far away R&B, tinged with soul that carries Liv.e’s scattered thoughts to fruition. Liv.e lets us in on her ongoing process of self forgiveness and development, a whispered sentiment that sinks smoothly back into the layers of piano keys, finger snaps, and clusters of hi-hats. —N.M.
“Delete Forever” by Grimes
“Delete Forever” is a delicate pop-folk morsel. Grimes taps into a nearly Vanessa Carlton-like vibe, hitting vocal riffs reminiscent of the early 2000s modern simplicity and layering it with jangly finger-picking guitar riffs. Stripped of Grimes’s usual glitchiness, the track leaves more space for her heart-wrenching dedication to the friends she has lost to addiction. —N.M.
“XS” by Rina Sawayama
In a time when resentment for billionaires is at an all-time high, distrust for rich celebrities is spreading fast, and the world continues to burn as a by-product of corporate greed, Rina Sawayama offers a timely takedown of capitalism in the form of “XS,” a soothing 2000s-era-inspired bop. While the track may at first come off as a typical pop track celebrating exorbitant wealth and material possessions (“Cartier set / Tesla Xs / Calabasas, I deserve it”), the subversive lyrics mock the people who want too much and warn against the dangers of overconsumption. —Erica Gonzales, Culture & Content Strategy Editor
“Shameika” by Fiona Apple
On Fiona Apple’s triumphant album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, her first in eight years, she looks back at the challenges and learning moments of her formative years with a wiser discerning eye. One of those reflections is the bright and punchy “Shameika,” where Apple recalls a time when she was being bullied in school and a classmate told her that she had potential. The exchange resonated with Apple, both as a child and as an adult, and now with listeners who’ve quoted the lyrics in tweets and Twitter bios. —E.G.
“Describe” by Perfume Genius
The leading single for Perfume Genius’s latest album is a delicious slow burn with its velvety guitar chords, honey-dripping pace, and layered vocals. But amid the dreamy haze, Mike Hadreas actually sings of being in such a dark place that he’s forgotten what it’s like to feel good things, so someone has to describe them to him. This song, however, is unforgettable. —E.G.
“Captain Hook” by Megan Thee Stallion
After the rapper’s former record label tried to block the release of her new music, the arrival of her March 6 project, Suga, just tasted even sweeter. On the follow-up to her 2019 album Fever, and seasonal hit “Hot Girl Summer,” Stallion is confident, sharp, vulgar, and untouchable. The standout track, “Captain Hook”—on which she flaunts her sexual exploits and weaves through dexterous flows—may just find her at her raunchiest and most intimidating. And we love it. —E.G.
“Garden Song” by Phoebe Bridgers
In her first solo release since her acclaimed 2017 debut album, Stranger in the Alps, Bridgers sends us into a dreamlike state with her signature narrative style and gentle vocals as she sings about her hometown and recurring nightmares. The pairing of the peaceful, guitar-led melody with haunting imagery is spine-tingling (“Someday, I’m gonna live / In your house up on the hill / And when your skinhead neighbor goes missing / I’ll plant a garden in the yard”), as is the gravelly bass harmony, performed by her tour manager, under the chorus. —E.G.
“Levitating” by Dua Lipa
Dua Lipa treated us to a full serving of hits with her sophomore album, Future Nostalgia, which arrived in March just as lockdowns began. With nightlife on pause and clubs and dance floors empty, the pop star gave us a reason to dance, and this disco-laced, funk-infused track just gets the job done. The song even got a surprising end-of-year boost with a remix featuring DaBaby, whose buoyant flow matches the song perfectly. —E.G.
“Song 33” by Noname
The Chicago rapper and organizer does so much in just 70 seconds. She responds to J. Cole’s track “Snow on tha Bluff,” which seems to paint her activism as patronizing. She calls out the men and the high-profile rappers, who are too quiet during times of unrest and who hold up the patriarchy by not doing enough to protect Black women, like the slain activist Toyin Salau or trans women, whom she mentions in the song. And she points out how petty arguments like Cole’s distract from the more pressing issue of injustice, citing George Floyd’s death by police. “When George was beggin’ for his mother, saying he couldn’t breathe / You thought to write about me?” Noname rhymes, all over a chill, psychedelic beat by Madlib. —E.G.
“Dynamite” by BTS
The kings of K-pop continued to reign supreme in 2020, releasing their first English-language song to chart-topping success. The track not only solidified their global stardom but also demonstrated pop perfection. Glittery, infectious, and equipped with a final chorus key change, “Dynamite” lives up to its name. —E.G.
“WAP” by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion
“WAP” is more than a song. It was a moment. It was a movement. It defined the cultural zeitgeist of 2020. It inspired Instagram captions and TikTok dances, perhaps to the chagrin of our exhausted followers. But most importantly, it showed that women, especially women in hip-hop, can own their power through expressing their sexuality, rather than be reduced to objects of pleasure. In a time when women are still body-shamed and taboos about intimacy linger, lines like “Gobble me, swallow me, drip down the side of me” are welcome acts of defiance. —E.G.
“Care” by Beabadoobee
Angst and frustration were not lacking in 2020, and Beabadoobee captured them perfectly with grungy guitars and a late-’90s vibe on “Care.” “I just love that feeling of nostalgia. It’s like a warm blanket,” the singer, born Bea Kristi, told us in October. The delicate but rough-around-the-edges track sounds plucked from a retro coming-of-age film, in which you’re the main character. —E.G.
“pov” by Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande’s surprise album, positions, may be considered her sexiest LP yet, but this head-over-heels-in-love ballad is a surprising standout. “I’d love to see me from your point of view,” the pop star sings, almost staccato, in the chorus. She sweetly acknowledges a partner’s unconditional love and hopes it can inspire her own self-love. —E.G.
“How You Like That” by Blackpink
Western, mainstream music listeners are just scratching the surface when it comes to K-pop, and Blackpink continued to break through this year, thanks to some big-name collabs, punchy singles, a new album, and a Netflix documentary. On their lead single, the girl group did what they do best: put their own spin on an intense trap beat (courtesy of producers like Teddy Park). —E.G.
“Rain on Me” by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande
It’s always a little scary when two big names collaborate; there’s a lot of pressure for the end result to live up to already-high expectations. But with Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, there was no reason to fear. The pop pair worked through their pain together and delivered an invigorating dance track about the complex journey of healing. —E.G.
“Weak” by Flo Milli
Leave it to Flo Milli to repurpose SWV’s hopelessly romantic R&B ballad for a searing diss about the men wasting her time. “Blowin’ me up, I’m tryna sleep / I ain’t your freak,” she vents. The 20-year-old rapper carries this audacious swagger and IDGAF confidence through all 12 tracks of her debut mixtape, Ho, Why Is You Here?, making her one of the most exciting entertainers of the year. —E.G.
“Do It” by Chloe x Halle
Just when we thought Chloe and Halle Bailey couldn’t get any more impressive, they stunned us with glow-ups for their latest album, Ungodly Hour. Every aspect from the fashion to the art direction got an upgrade, and the music was elevated to a unique blend of alt-R&B, pop, and hip-hop that the sisters have claimed as their own. “Do It,” their lead single, is a prime example with soaring harmonies and airtight production. —E.G.
“Moment” by Victoria Monét
A longtime composer for acts like Ariana Grande, Diddy, and Fifth Harmony, Victoria Monét beautifully comes into her own with her album, Jaguar, which shows a more mature side to the Grammy nominee. Her leading single, “Moment,” is a seductive and sophisticated introduction to this new era. —E.G.
“Exile” by Taylor Swift featuring Bon Iver
Taylor Swift and Justin Vernon’s haunting duet focuses on the sorrow and heartbreak that come from two people not being able to understand or communicate with each other. But despite the premise, the pop star and indie folk favorite are creatively in sync, her raw lyrics supported by his transcendent arrangements. The result is a pleasantly unexpected collaboration, apropos of Swift’s best album yet. —E.G.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.
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