The year 2020 was one like no other and it demands a year-end music list like no other. This one features 20 songs which reflect upon a complex year, one that was filled with challenges and setbacks but also innovation and victories of the human spirit. Unlike other year-end music lists, this one isn’t confined to songs which were released in 2020, but also includes music from days of yore (like 2019 and 1972). Each made an impact during or represents some aspect of a truly unforgettable 12 months. See you never, 2020, and don’t let the door swat you on the ass on your way out.
20. Khruangbin and Leon Bridges, "Texas Sun"
Kicking off this list with some home cookin’ courtesy of hometown heroes Khruangbin, which brought Texas crooner Leon Bridges into its fold for this track from an EP of the same name. We got a glimpse of this one when the festival darlings made a triumphant homecoming to White Oak Music Hall in late 2019, back when concerts were still a thing. Bridges joined them for the song that night and we had a sneak peek of the EP, which preceded the band’s new, well-received (and vocals heavy!) full-length studio album, Mordechai.
19. Oliver Tree, "Let Me Down"
The enigmatic Oliver Tree’s artfully crafted persona may best be described as “Alien Boy,” a track from the wild ride that is Ugly is Beautiful, his summertime full-length. A bona fide YouTube breakthrough artist, his videos are engaging and clever, but it’s the hook from this track that resonated most for adventurous listeners. It echoed hauntingly anytime someone refused to wear a mask or declined to allow for civil discourse or otherwise openly exposed their inconsideration for others. So, it echoed quite a bit in 2020.
18. Morgan Wallen, "More Than My Hometown"
Wallen was nearly a cautionary tale from the pandemic. With so many artists sidelined and unable to perform live, his relatable country hits like "More Than My Hometown" gave him an opportunity to do just that, from New York on a Saturday night. Ahead of his scheduled appearance on Saturday Night Live, he was seen partying mask-less and his appearance was scrubbed. He repented and was rescheduled for a later date in the season, where his pandemic exploits were parodied and he performed the singles “7 Summers” and “Still Going Down.”
17. Zoom Theme Song
Okay, so maybe this one is a stretch. Probably only a handful of readers even know the song, but anyone that does might have whistled it while they worked from home on Zoom, the clear winner of the video communications formats which connected a suddenly separated world in 2020. Whether for work or pleasure, lots of us were asked to “Come on and Zoom.”
16. Black Pumas, "Fire"
The Black Pumas caught fire in 2020. Their Austin-based upstart efforts went from regional renown to global success with music fans glued to their TVs for binge watches during the self-imposed isolations. It seemed like singer Eric Burton and guitarist Adrian Quesada were everywhere — on Fallon, Colbert, Late Night with Seth Meyers, NPR's Tiny Desk, even the beleaguered Ellen show. The invites, of course, were warranted thanks to well-crafted music with meat on its bones, retro soul tunes that had listeners saying, "Yeah, that's how they used to do it" or "The good music is back," an actual critique from the YouTube commenters section of the live session video for "Fire."
15. The Mountain Goats, "This Year"
It’s an excellent tune from a less-daunting time (2005) but it’s listed here because many of us returned to its comforting refrain in 2020: “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.” Almost there, friends.
14. AC/DC, "Shot in the Dark"
Rock and roll: not dead. In fact, it’s not even old or grey because some of its elder icons sound rejuvenated on their new albums. Take Paul McCartney's latest, McCartney III, which sounds less like The Beatles or Wings than Sufjan Stevens or some other indie rock songwriter. But no elder sages had more fun with new stuff than AC/DC, which regrouped with singer Brian Johnson for new songs that sound like old AC/DC. "Shot In the Dark" was a shot in the arm for rock and roll fans everywhere.
13. The Scorpions, "Rock You Like a Hurricane"
This was the year everyone who never rushed a frat or sorority learned the Greek alphabet, all thanks to the most active Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history. With 30 named storms and a dozen striking the States over six months, you may/might/must have found yourself humming this 1984 rock anthem at least once.
12. Marcel P. Black, Songs from In Search of the Black Messiah
The Baton Rouge rapper’s 2019 effort In Search of the Black Messiah and his back catalog got some attention this summer thanks to a post by writer and civil rights activist Shaun King. Black talked about the album and his socially conscious rap with the Houston Press for a February article ahead of a date at Notsuoh. Then spring came and the killing of George Floyd moved people to the streets to protest police brutality in hundreds of American cities. In the midst of it all, King made a music-centric post “in the spirit of Juneteenth weekend and in celebration of ‘#BlackMusicAppreciationMonth’” wherein he listed Black’s 2016 track, “Cry Freedom” and called it “an incredible song that captures the soul and energy of the movement for Black liberation.” The nod from King, who has over a million Twitter followers, showcased how some of the country’s most important music is coming from DIY artists like Black.
11. DaBaby, "Rockstar" featuring Roddy Ricch
Grammy nominated for Record of the Year and Best Rap Song, "Rockstar" joined two of 2020's top hip hop artists for a springtime smash, which begot a remix which became a summertime smash. The song was perched atop Billboard's Hot 100 for seven weeks altogether, including its "Black Lives Matter" remix which came during the height of the protests.
10. Fleetwood Mac, "Dreams"
The 1977 classic from Fleetwood Mac’s juggernaut album Rumours was given new life in 2020 thanks to a popular TikTok video. A whole new generation of music fans shirked off the video and focused on the audio. Might this be a blueprint for keeping great songs alive? Anyone out there interested in TikTok-ing up some Coltrane or Debussy? The song is the only one of the Mac’s to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 100 and it re-entered the chart this year, as well as topping streaming charts on Spotify and Apple Music, thanks to its viral turn.
9. Fiona Apple, "Shameika"
The track that’s gotten the most love from Fiona Apple’s 2020 album Fetch the Bolt Cutters - considered the winner of the early quarantine music sweeps — is a track which reminds us that our inner flame sometimes benefits from the oxygen exhaled by others. It was a timely message during our isolation. Apple must have known that many in lockdown would love the song and others from an album which advocates for freeing one’s self from negativity and doubt. Against her label's wishes, she rushed the album's release and it arrived not a moment too soon in mid-April.
8. Mon Laferte, "Biutiful"
Honestly, we're here for anything Mon Laferte does or wants to do, but we are especially here for this track, which was a critical reminder to celebrate what we love about ourselves when so much idle time alone might have taken us in different and worrisome directions. The video stands as a quarantine instant classic, with the Chilean songstress cooped up in a smallish bedroom and restlessly passing the time playing dress up, just like the rest of us in confinement.
7. Roddy Ricch, "The Box"
"The Box" was an undeniable 2020 hit, with an 11-week run as Billboard's #1 song, beginning in January and charging straight through the first full month of lockdown in our own little boxes. Its stronghold on the charts, on radios and on streaming platforms made it a no-brainer choice for awards time. It's already nabbed Song of the Year honors from the BET Hip Hop Awards and Apple Music Awards and is thrice nominated for the approaching Grammy Awards, including consideration in the same category.
6. BTS, "Dynamite"
The K-Pop wonders lit up the charts with this likable, feel-good tune, their first full English-language song. The official video for the massive global hit was released merely four months ago and is already closing in on a billion hits.
5. Phoebe Bridgers, "Kyoto"
The indie rocker made a big push into the mainstream in 2020 with a headline-grabbing take on Eric Clapton and a widely-hailed album of her own music dubbed Punisher. The album, released in June, earned her four Grammy nods and "Kyoto" introduced her to many new listeners who found her performing the song against a green screen (the official video), in bed (on “The Late Late Show with James Corden") and in a bathroom (on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”)
4. Dua Lipa, "Don’t Start Now"
Dua Lipa might be the world’s greatest EMT because she resuscitated a long-dead music form with this disco delight. When in doubt, dance it out someone once said and the best dance track of the year gave us exactly what we needed to rock freak our pandemic worries away, even if for just a few minutes.
3. The Weeknd, "Blinding Lights"
Topping many year-end “best of” lists, the song was a megahit for one of pop’s biggest stars, reaching No. 1 status on charts in 34 different countries. Its extended stay on Billboard surely helped The Weeknd snag the coveted headlining spot on the approaching Super Bowl halftime show and spawned a remix of the song with Spanish pop star Rosalía, which dropped earlier this month.
2. Dolly Parton, (pick any song)
Dolly Parton’s publicist has a dream job. In November 2019 (remember way back then?) the New York Times ran a piece detailing what a great year the country icon was having then, being the subject of a popular podcast hosted by Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad and a hit documentary on Netflix. How’d she follow that banner year? By releasing new music in the spring and winter, launching a free, 10-week storytelling series for the quarantined housebound, speaking up for Black Lives Matter in a widely-quoted Billboard article, making a $1 million dollar donation to COVID research which, in part, funded the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and saving a kid from being struck by a car while filming a Netflix holiday special. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, SNL’s Melissa Villaseñor deftly paid honor to her in a recent skit which touched on many of Parton’s 2020 contributions as an artist and humanitarian. How will she top herself in 2021?
1. Cardi B, "WAP," featuring Megan Thee Stallion
This list is bookended by Houston artists. Megan Thee Stallion had a monster, prolific 2020 which included music on the Birds of Prey soundtrack, a springtime EP which featured “Savage,” first a hit on TikTok then on Billboard in a remixed version featuring another Houston music powerhouse (you know who she is). Meg was everywhere – on Fallon, on HBO, on Saturday Night Live, and that was before she ever released her debut full length, Good News, which appeared in November to high praise. But she zoomed past all of those accomplishments and into the zeitgeist with "WAP."
Teaming with fellow rapper-singer-songwriter Cardi B, you needed "a bucket and a mop" to soak up all the sex-positive and woman-confident vibes which gushed from their revel. Everyone was talking about "WAP" at some point in 2020. Some relished in the song’s themes of female empowerment and some well-known conservative dudes like Ben Shapiro and Snoop Dogg (?) barked back. Megan had the last word in a recent British GQ interview. Speaking directly to them from a men’s magazine, she said the reason some fellows can’t handle the song’s lyrics is their own fear and insecurity. Now that is savage (and true). If they don’t like her shine they should start looking away now since Megan Thee Stallion will possibly soon be polishing one, two, three or four new, golden Grammy Awards.