The 20 best songs of 2020

The 20 best songs of 2020

Our writers considered hundreds of contenders – and here are their picks of the year. Listen to all 390 tracks they voted for on our playlist

We kick off our end of 2020 music coverage with Guardian critics’ favourite songs, with our album of the year countdown starting tomorrow. As ever, each critic votes for top 20 songs and albums, with points allocated for each placing, and those points tallied to make these lists. There were 390 songs voted for in all – we’ve put (almost) all of them in a Spotify playlistPlease share your own favourite songs of the year in the comments below, and we’ll hopefully see you in a festival field in 2021 …


Daniel Avery – Lone Swordsman

The title is a reference to Two Lone Swordsman, a project by the late DJ and producer Andrew Weatherall, and the track itself was made on the day he died in February: “A hero, a friend and someone who regularly reminded us all how it should be done, not to mention the funniest fucker around,” in Avery’s words. The music Avery made is a poignant tribute: solemn, elegiac chords are paired with a delicate synth melody that flits away from the beat, like a meaty rave riff – one that Weatherall might have enjoyed – haltingly conjured in a dancer’s memory. BBT


Chloe x Halle – Do It

When Halle Bailey sings the heavenly pre-chorus to Do It, you half expect twittering birds and frolicking squirrels to appear, Snow White-style, as her vocals flutter up the scale. She isn’t summoning woodland spirits but the guardian angels of a charmed night out: “homies only”, “no drama”, “keepin’ it cute”. The fact that any kind of soiree is fantastical right now lends the sisters’ low-key transcendent R&B an extra layer of poignancy, though their regard for 00s classics coupled with the nimble intimacy of contemporary pop songwriting would elevate it in any era. LS


Terrace Martin and Denzel Curry – Pig Feet (feat Kamasi Washington, G Perico & Daylyt)

The frustration, terror and rage experienced by Black people following the killing of George Floyd is distilled into a track that vibrates with post-traumatic stress. Martin is a multi-hyphenate talent who has long brought jazz into rap (including as co-producer of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly); here he uses hand drums as an Easter-egg nod to Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues. But this is no sorrowful lament: rappers Denzel Curry and Daylyt deliver long screeds poetically unpicking the twisted US justice system, while Kamasi Washington’s pealing saxophone intensifies the chaos, recalling the wheeling helicopter Curry sees as his verse begins. BBT


Romy – Lifetime

Romy Madley Croft’s debut single is powerfully – and precisely – nostalgic: as she takes a temporary break from the xx’s intimate hush to explore airy, polychromatic synth-pop, she echoes New Order’s emergence from Joy Division and Vince Clarke abandoning lugubrious Depeche Mode for the pop visions of Yazoo and later Erasure. It suits her gorgeously, also aligning her with that era’s fellow understated divas, Lisa Stansfield and Tracey Thorn. Written and recorded during lockdown and amid an uncertain future for nightlife, Lifetime finds comfort in club pop’s revivifying powers and life-enhancing potential in Madley Croft’s reminder to seize the moment, to stay open to the wonder that instils those powerful memories. LS


Fiona Apple – Ladies

The resonant double bass on Ladies swings between buoyant ease and defeated slump. It’s between these poles that Fiona Apple vacillates as she proposes establishing a lineage of her ex’s exes, how they might bond by rejecting the conventional mistrust intended to divide them. She knows it’s hopeless: “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through,” she mutters ruefully. She tries anyway. As she imagines her negotiations with her romantic successors, how they might share hand-me-downs and leftover prescriptions, her vocal range hints at the expansiveness of such a possible future, the euphoria and humour and silliness and even ugliness that might overflow with guards lowered. “No love is like any other love,” she cries, with the force of shovelling dirt. She’s anguished and defeated – no match for decades of socialisation – but the persistent lambent twinkle of the tender, loungey setting hints at how beautiful her vision could be. LS


Dua Lipa – Hallucinate

If 2020 had gone to plan, Hallucinate would have been the cathartic high point of Dua Lipa’s Glastonbury set: that fateful Worthy Farm moment where wholesome day catalyses into suggestive night, when the weight in your ankles dissipates and the festival truly becomes supernatural. That communal promise had to be repurposed as private reverie as Lipa’s addictively wavy vocals and sublime disco house – an expertly rendered pan-decade hybrid outside space and time – airlifted us out of lockdown and on to a higher plane. LS


Pa Salieu – My Family (feat BackRoad Gee)

BackRoad Gee returns the favour after Pa Salieu appeared on his equally extraordinary track Party Popper earlier in the year, showing the once-in-a-generation affinity shared by these two MCs. They wear their African heritage with pride, their accents ringing with Congolese and Gambian musicality; BackRoad Gee uses bolts of plosive consonants to stun his target, leaving Pa Salieu to scorn them, circling around with his sinewy flow. Fanatix’s production, meanwhile, has the chill of drill but the shimmy of Afro-swing, an intensely potent mix. To steal a viral tweet about Cardi B’s WAP, we as a society have yet to experience My Family in a club context … it may be too powerful. BBT


Bob Dylan – Murder Most Foul

Releasing albums of cover versions in recent years, Dylan seemed to be nestling into his slippers by the fire, so it was exhilarating to see him kick them off and walk on the coals once more. Murder Most Foul is a true masterpiece that equals his very best songs, and at 17 minutes it’s his longest ever. Centred on the John F Kennedy assassination, it’s a portrait of 20th-century America filled with conspiracy theories, hippies, racists, film stars and music: blues, jazz and rock’n’roll from Stan Getz to Stevie Nicks. It has a valedictory air and is nostalgic for the 1960s – “His soul was not there where it was supposed to be at / For the last 50 years they’ve been searchin’ for that” is about the quest for Kennedy’s misplaced brain, though it’s really about locating the country’s misplaced heart. Yet Dylan faces forward, upward, climbing to a new mystical plane for his songwriting. BBT


Miley Cyrus – Midnight Sky

Midnight Sky is ragingly lonely and thrillingly reckless in rejection. The rumbling echo of the first verse summons Cyrus alone in a dive-bar bathroom, the party raging through the wall as she gives herself a pep talk about getting the hell out; her huge, brackish voice finds its ultimate purpose in the chorus, churning with indignation about the idea that she should “belong to anyone”. Yet Cyrus is by no means alone: referencing Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and the sardonic pop-rock iconography of Debbie Harry and Joan Jett, Midnight Sky finds her flanked by US rock greats on her celestial escape lane – and strengthens the case for her as pop’s current greatest singles artist. LS


Jayda G – Both of Us

There is a moment about halfway through Jayda G’s loose, mellow disco-house marvel where the tempo crawls almost to a halt, allowing you to savour the richness of every piano chord. More than that, it conjures that moment on a dancefloor where you take a moon-eyed moment to watch and appreciate your beautiful friends as they’re lost in the music. “I – just – want – to – be – with – you,” the Canadian DJ gasps, all euphoric yearning, as if extending a hand through the dark. LS


Rina Sawayama – XS

It’s baffling that this track didn’t reach the Top 40: XS is one of the most wildly catchy pop songs this year, layering nostalgic references – Neptunes guitar lines; the purring Just a Little by Liberty X – into a teetering whole. That sense of being overstuffed, heightened by blurting power chords, is cleverly satirical: Sawayama’s persona is a vocal-fried Calabasas sybarite buying “zip codes at the mall”, someone for whom consuming is living. XS’s grotesque arrangement suggests that there is something horribly wrong about this, but its allure acknowledges the urge to give yourself up to capitalism. BBT


Perfume Genius – On the Floor

Mike Hadreas animates shame like nobody else, stringing it up like a puppet and making it dance to show its weight and its absurdity. Here, it duels with desire as he crystallises that recurring moment in a young queer person’s life where the thrill of a crush clashes with fearful internalised prejudice. As the flinching Herbie Hancock-indebted funk traces the battle writhing within, Hadreas is coy at first. Then, he swoons, his choral harmonies asking “how long till I walk in the light” so on the nose they seem to parody the bigots who think you can pray such feelings away. Instead, it’s rhythm that offers divine intervention, the irrepressible vigour of On the Floor exorcising the anguish. LS


Dua Lipa – Physical

It’s aptly named: compared with fleet-footed Lipa singles such as Don’t Start Now and Levitating, Physical has a glorious heft. Over the kind of synthwave bass line best deployed in an 80s sports car on a deserted urban motorway, Lipa is almost embarrassingly forward. “Let’s get physical!” she demands, as if grabbing you by the collar and hauling you down a hotel corridor. Apparently, Flashdance was a touchstone when writing it, but surely it was Olivia Newton-John, underscored by the workout-themed music video. BBT


Waxahatchee – Fire

On the lead single from her sublime fifth album, Katie Crutchfield sings in an unusually high register, the reach in her grainy twang in piercing contrast to the softly rumbling toms and thumbed guitar. The discomfort is the point. Fire documents the change in Crutchfield’s life after she took a break from touring and learned to sit with her feelings, becoming “wiser and slow and attuned” as she did so (not to mention making the best album of her career). You have to tear the muscle to build it – plus her younger self lives on, her voracious spirit traced in Crutchfield’s gorgeous vocal arcs across the sky. LS


The Weeknd – Blinding Lights

Blinding Lights, which was actually released in late 2019, cruised up the UK charts for two months before spending 14 weeks toggling between No 1 and No 2, and almost the entire year on the Top 40. It’s the year’s biggest song both in terms of sales and size, a titanic pop production from backroom genius Max Martin, who seems to pay homage to his fellow Scandinavians a-ha with the peppy gated drums. (It also works as a companion piece to Lipa’s Physical.) And Abel Tesfaye himself shows he can slip between genres as casually as he does the lovers in his songs, notching up another inappropriate wedding disco classic – if there had been any wedding discos to play it at. BBT


Sault – Wildfires

Like new shoots coming through stubble burned off a field, the mysterious UK neo-soul group consider the transformative effect of fire as they face the pain of police brutality with a determination to survive and indeed thrive. Over a rhythm section pitched perfectly between a boom-bap hip-hop break and a 60s pop-soul beat, there is a profound intimacy to the arrangement: you can feel the fingers on thick double bass strings and the echo of a piano in a room, giving the sense of a group huddled together. The vocal, drifting into the red, also feels scorched but tenacious. BBT


Megan Thee Stallion – Savage feat Beyoncé

J White Did It’s chiming production on Savage hits like sunlight in a swimming pool, the rays refracted and glinting beneath the blue. That sound is as prismatic as the personality traits that Megan coolly ticks off in the chorus, one inscribed in rap legend even before Beyoncé joined her for the remix. A production this perfectly balanced could easily have been crushed by the kind of ungainly, all-star streaming bait that has proliferated in recent years, but Beyoncé’s playfulness and the duo’s kindred Houston spirit keeps things hummingbird-nimble. Brimming with the sense of two titans sparking off one another, never burdened with the weight of legacy, Savage becomes a constantly renewing source of freshness. LS


Christine and the Queens – People, I’ve Been Sad

Well, haven’t we all? That wryly understated admission in the title sums up the candour, humour and acute feeling that defines Héloïse Letissier’s pop project, and they’re words that many of us needed to hear this year as weeks of physical disconnection turned into months. “If you disappear then I’m disappearing too” is a helpless yet comforting chorus, sung as a duet between two versions of herself that desperately want to become one. It’s also one of her funkiest performances, recalling the way Michael Jackson would place gasps, hisses and monosyllables exquisitely on and around the beat, but done at a measured tempo. BBT


Cardi B – WAP feat Megan Thee Stallion

The Republicans got it all wrong: the real transgressive delight of WAP was how Cardi and Megan revelled in bodily fluids during a year of (admittedly justified) paranoia about the minutiae of droplet transmission. Indeed, their cups ranneth over so much that the noise from prudes losing their minds over WAP (the imagined damage it might do to kids’ ears receiving noticeably more airtime than the actual trauma Megan sustained after being shot) threatened to overshadow the duo’s phenomenal performances. It’s a timeless two-hander, Cardi gruffly indomitable as she demands due respect for her right to pleasure; Megan spinning heads until the hapless man in her grip can’t remember the excuse for his lacklustre loving either. The only downside to their gleeful slip’n’slide is that you’ll never look at mac and cheese the same way again. LS


Lady Gaga – Rain on Me (with Ariana Grande)

Rain on Me is technically a breakup song: “At least I showed up, you showed me nothing at all,” Gaga sings in the opening verse, scorning a lover who has fallen short of expectations. But it’s not really about that at all – for anyone who has listened to it, it’s about how bad 2020 is. “I’d rather be dry / but at least I’m alive” runs the chorus – being thankful for not being dead was where we reset the bar this year, and it was thrilling to hear someone sing it so honestly. Instead of trying to shelter from the storm, Gaga and Grande ask for the worst thing to happen so they can be delivered from it; Grande also calls for the rain to wash away her sins. It’s that sense of transcendence that makes it such a potent song in 2020, by acknowledging the rain and dancing through it. BBT

via theguardian

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