The top of the Billboard Hot 100 was nothing short of a revolving door this year. With 21 different songs from 25 different musical acts hitting #1, the instability of the #1 spot directly mirrored the mayhem of 2020. In a way, it was poetic. Much of the year was dominated by songs that saw their initial release in 2019: Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” Doja Cat’s “Say So,” Harry Styles’ “Adore You” and “Watermelon Sugar,” etc. Nevertheless, songs released in 2020 also conquered the chart. Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion team up to give us the ultimate savage anthem (“Savage”), BTS topped the chart three times in both Korean and English (“Dynamite,” “Savage Love,” and “Life Goes On”), Nicki Minaj scored her first two #1 singles (“Say So” and “TROLLZ”), and Ariana Grande flew to the top with slinky solo singles (“positions”) and powerhouse pop collaborations (“Rain On Me”) and (“Stuck With U”). The best songs of 2020, however, were the ones that soaked up the chaos and revolutionary spirit of the year and wove that energy through every chord. The best songs were also the ones that provided escapism or focused on minuscule moments that got swallowed up by the historic events of the year. Across pop, R&B, rap, reggae, country, and more, these are the best songs of 2020:
#40. “Dying in the Subtlety”
By: Cautious Clay
In a year that felt so big, it was nice to get some songs that focused on the little things. “Dying In The Subtlety” is the youngest song on this list by far, but what it lacks in age it more than makes up for with its insightful lyricism. On this track, Cautious Clay focuses on the minuscule moments in relationships that tend to distract from the bigger picture. His soulful timbre rings across the bouncy drums and bass, but it’s the soaring melody in the chorus that paints a beautiful pastiche of 00s pop-rock. Unfortunately, this song adheres to the recent trend of songs without bridges, but given the subject matter, it actually works here. Key Lyric/Moment: The guitar solo that closes the song.
By: Anderson .Paak
2020 gifted us, for better or for worse, a boom of protest songs. These were songs inspired by the protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and songs that actively tried to position themselves as “anthems” of the movement. Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown,” thankfully, is more of the former than the latter. “Lockdown” thrives because of its honesty and sincerity. The song exists at the center of the tension between necessary lockdowns in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the innate need to protest and demand justice for Black people in this country and across the world. Over a relatively understated production courtesy of J.LBS and Anderson himself, Anderson raps about his experiences at protests in L.A. in 2020 with vigor and pensiveness that drives home the sincerity of his songwriting. This is how you do “protest music.” Key Lyric/Moment: “Niggas got hip, so we don’t loot the projects/’Bout to hit Rodeo with my lil’ cousin Marcus”
That’s right, another song titled “Lockdown!” This time, Koffee, reggae’s brightest star, gave us the perfect quarantine love song. The reggae-pop offering is filled with teasing lines of affection (“You got me pon lock now/You got my passion unlocked”) to an unnamed quarantine ting. Koffee even goes as far as to envision a world post-quarantine, or at least dream of what she and her boo will do once things go back to normal. In the age of COVID-19, romance felt weird. Were you settling into something out of convenience, or was the romance actually real? “Lockdown” isn’t really concerned with those existential questions which is what makes it so enjoyable. Key Lyric/Moment: “Last time see yuh pon FaceTime/Chatting up di place/Bout you nuh want relationship/Me a go put you pon lockdown.”
By: Spillage Village featuring Ant Clemons
Spillage Village, comprised of JID, 6LACK, Mereba, Hollywood JB, Jurdan Bryant, Benji, and EARTHGANG, gave us one of the most immersive albums of the year with Spillage Village. Their introspective lyricism and soulful sonic foundation are perhaps best encapsulated by “Baptize.” Songs about religion can feel redundant, but this song’s queries about God and his motives in the context of African-American history feel fresh and raw. JID’s verse, stacked with an equal amount of Biblical and pop culture references, is the clear standout. Nevertheless, it’s Ant Clemons’ gorgeous outro that truly elevates the track. Gallant and Luke James also provide additional vocals on this song — it doesn’t get any better than that! There may be a lot of personalities on this song, but it never feels like we’re being bludgeoned over the head by any one voice. “Baptize” is perfectly balanced, from Olu & Christo’s moody production to the fantastic performances across the board. Key Lyric/Moment: “And only God can judge, and that’s only if He still give a fuck/Water to wine, it started out fine but now it taste a little bitter, huh?”
#36. “My Block”
By: Che Lingo
Rap has a long and fruitful history of tackling police violence and the tension between law enforcement and Black people. When that history is globalized through iterations of rap outside of the States, we are reminded of just how powerful the art form is. Che Lingo’s “My Block” is scathing addition to the ever-growing lexicon of rap songs about police brutality. Inspired by the heart-breaking and infuriating story of Julian Cole, a teenager that was paralyzed in a violent arrest by police officers who later lied about the incident, “My Block” is incredible. Che’s lyricism isn’t concerned with lofty metaphors, he cuts right to the chase and refuses to mince words about the horrors of the police state. You can literally hear his anguished gasping in between bars. It’s raw. Instead of providing a soft juxtaposition, the production plays off of the intensity of Che’s delivery as it blends elements of drill into the militant instrumental. Key Lyric/Moment: “Healing necessary/Not hereditary”
By: Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion
What is there to say about “WAP” that hasn’t already been said? From the fantastic music video and instantly iconic Frank Ski sample to the slick verses and TikTok choreography, “WAP” has provided too many amazing musical and cultural moments to count. At the end of the day, the song is a banger. Cardi has been mostly silent since “Money” and “Press,” but she proved that she wasn’t lacking at all in terms of her fire and charisma. Megan, however, stole the show with her flawless flow and hilarious punchlines. It’s always great to see two stars at their top of their game team up for a collaboration, and it’s even better when the song is actually good. Key Lyric/Moment: Megan’s entire first verse.
#34. “I Should Probably Go to Bed”
By: Dan + Shay
What would it sound like if country music’s hottest duo listened to a bunch of Queen and then went to the studio to make a ballad? The answer would probably be “I Should Probably Go To Bed.” After making the perfect country-pop confection earlier this year with the Justin Bieber-assisted “10,000 Hours,” the duo turned to Queen’s musical legacy of shapeshifting songs for this track. Dan + Shay normally favor straightforward easily digestible melodies and traditional instrumentation for their country-pop niche. On this track, they opt for production that moves from twinkling pianos and delicate guitar to this rousing pseudo-orchestra of strings and drums. The song swells and contracts at any given moment, and the lyrics are just as expansive as the instrumentation. The duo explores the temptation of reconnecting with a lover and the inner fight to overcome that temptation. There really isn’t another song from this year that sounds like this. Dan + Shay have really outdone themselves with this one. Key Lyric/Moment: Near the end of the bridge when Shay transitions from falsetto to the climactic run.
By: Ariana Grande
Love songs are a dime a dozen. Songs about self-love are dime a dozen. Songs about self-love that are slyly framed as regular love songs? Those are a bit harder to come by. The final track on her sixth album, Positions, Ariana Grande’s “pov” is a stunning ballad. Her voice is bursting at the seams with emotion as she lyrically works her way to the point of seeing herself in the same way that her significant other sees her. With lyrical references (“all of my baggage fadin’ safely”) to the emotional apex (“ghostin”) of her last album, 2019’s thank u, next, the song lodges itself into Ariana’s three-album musical story of love, pain, loss, grief, trauma, and hope. The best part of “pov” is how her slight rasp plays against the beautiful string arrangements that lift the track’s overall production. It’s an absolutely gorgeous number and one of the best ballads of the year. Key Lyric/Moment: “I wanna LOOOOVE meeee” in the final chorus.
#32. “THE NEWS”
PARTYNEXTDOOR’s music has always been perfect for late night/early morning moments of contemplations of love and heartbreak. “The News” is a prime example of this. Over murky trap production accented by somber synths and keyboard, PND croons about getting accustomed to the cruel way his partner treats him. He sings “Do you deserve me? No way” with a slight twinge of pain that shifts what could be a cocky lyric to an utterly heartbreaking one. At its core, the song tracks the development of PND’s apathy to his partner’s infidelity. This is definitely not a fun or happy song; it’s heavy. “The News” sits in that heaviness with mostly stagnant production until the breakdown in the outro. PARTYMOBILE may have been a bit underwhelming, but “The News,” released as a dual lead single along with “Loyal,” is an absolute stunner. Key Lyric/Moment: The outro.
#31. “Tyler Herro”
By: Jack Harlow
Many listeners who encountered Jack Harlow post-“WHATS POPPIN” wanted to write him off. In a way, after the Macklemore phenomenon of the early/mid-2010s, could you blame them? The Grammy-nominated track went viral on TikTok and was remixed by the likes of DaBaby, Lil Wayne, and Justin Bieber. “Tyler Herro,” however, his follow-up single and the latest track from his debut album Thats What They All Say, is the real gem from Jack this year. Over an understated Scott Storch and Boi-1da production, Tyler packs on the punchlines and reflects on his new group of friends post-fame. Jack’s flow is what elevates this song; it’s somehow nonchalant and insistent at the same time. Victory lap raps are almost always enjoyable, and “Tyler Herro” is no different. Key Lyric/Moment: “I brought a gang to the party with me/Five white boys, but they not NSYNC”
“Inches” starts immediately. We barely get half a second into the song before Spice’s commanding voice chants that scene-setting intro. This delicious slice of dancehall pop is pure fun. When you think about it, it’s really messed up that so many great party songs dropped during a lockdown summer. Dancehall songs, more often than not, are rife with misogyny, so to hear a woman make a song about her hair and sound like she’s having a ball while doing it… now that’s gold. We’re still waiting for Spice’s debut album, but “Inches,” released on a compilation album earlier this year, is a great taste of what she has in store. What else makes “Inches” so great? It flips the narrative on the phallic metaphor that is often associated with the word. On this track, Spice centers herself and makes “inches” about the length of her hair that she’s whipping around as she owns the dancefloor. Empowering feels cliché to use at this point, but that’s what “Inches” is. Key Lyric/Moment: “I got my inches/Stuntin’ on these bitches/Bouncing with my inches/Twerking on all you hoes.”
Few things in this world are more brilliant than flipping a bar song melody into a song about the cloudiness of a hangover. Okay, there are probably some better things, but Jojo does this so well on “Pedialyte” that hyperbole feels necessary. Taken from her stellar good to know album, “Pedialyte” is one part melancholic downtempo pop anthem and one part sensual R&B slow jam. Her signature soaring voice takes a more restrained approach here which really underscores the feeling of fatigue (of routine, the hangover, love, relationships, etc.) that grounds the song. When Jojo slips into a Janet Jackson-influenced outro that doubles as an interlude, that’s when “Pedialyte” really hits its peak. Key Lyric/Moment: “But when I wake up/Who’s gon’ be my savior?“
By: Tayla Parx
Think of your favorite pop song from the past 3-4 years. Tayla Parx probably wrote it. In 2020 alone, she contributed to “Diamonds” (Megan Thee Stallion & Normani), “Take Yourself Home” (Troye Sivan), “Sweet Melody” (Little Mix), and “34+35” (Ariana Grande). This year, Tayla also dropped her sophomore solo album, Coping Mechanisms. The kaleidoscopic album housed the near-perfect “Dance Alone,” which I named one of the best songs of the year on my mid-year list, but it’s “System” that gets the honor of being on the year-end list. The lovesick song sees Tayla pining for relief over a Dem Jointz production that blends dance, R&B, and alternative music into one shapeshifter of a track. Her almost manic vocal performance is antithetical to nearly everything else on the album which makes the track so immediately arresting. It’s the beat switch in the second half of the song, however, that really seals the deal. It hints at this for most of its run, but the inevitable transformation into a house anthem hits every time. Key Lyric/Moment: 1:37 onwards
#27. “Nasty Girl / On Camera”
“Throat Baby” may have been the male equivalent to “WAP” this year, but “Nasty Girl / On Camera” is up there as well. Take from WUNNA, Gunna’s sophomore album, “Nasty Girl / On Camera” is a two-song examination of Gunna’s worldwide sexual escapades that increases its risqué-ness as the beat transforms. Many double songs aren’t really two songs put together, they’re more like one full song and an unfinished idea of a second song put together. They’re usually pretty great, but “Nasty Girl / On Camera” is literally two songs with two separate choruses welded together by haunting production courtesy of longtime Gunna collaborators Taurus and Wheezy. “On Camera” ups the ante by lyrically putting the deviant acts of “Nasty Girl” on camera for the whole world to see. Gunna’s sense of melody is out of this world on WUNNA, but the way he skates over the first part of this track is something lethal. Key Lyric/Moment: Wheezy’s production on “Nasty Girl”
ROSALÍA became a worldwide household name thanks to her slinky blend of flamenco and Latin pop with splashes of hip-hop, classical, and reggaeton. From “Malamente” to “Con Altura” and from “Aute Cuture” to “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi,” ROSALÍA has been topping charts around the world with her velvety voice and excellent creative vision. “Dolerme,” released earlier this year, is definitely one of the more left-field singles ROSALÍA put out this year. The ballad blends alternative rock and flamenco as ROSALÍA laments about an on-again-off-again relationship over guitar and keyboard loops. ROSALÍA’s vocal performance is the real star here; she sounds gloomy and tortured here which really sells the frustration that she dissects in the lyrics. Her new album can’t come soon enough. Key Lyric/Moment: “Yo ya no sé por qué no quiere dolerme/Acelero pa’ ver si consigo estrellarme (I no longer I know why he doesn’t want to hurt me I accelerate to see if I can crash).”
#25. “Fly to My Room”
BTS basically owned 2020. The K-Pop phenoms scored their first three Billboard Hot 100 #1s in three months, the first two of which, “Dynamite” and their remix of Jawsh 685 & Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat),” were decidedly uptempo and high-energy. “Fly to My Room,” however, taken from their latest #1 album, BE, is a departure from that sound. The Bangtan Boys ruminate about the power and innovation of imagination in front of a life that has been defined by lockdown and quarantine in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic. The song blends elements of R&B and pop to build a soundscape that examines the tension between loudness and silence. The organ and choir at the end are a predictable Lukas Graham-esque touch, but it’s the right amount of cheesiness. The plucky keyboard and drum pattern underscore the beautiful falsetto and sing-songy delivery of Jimin, V, J-Hope, and SUGA. This is BTS at their best. Key Lyric/Moment: “누가 저 시계를 좀 돌려줘/올해 다 뺏겼어 (Somebody turn back the clock/The entire year got stolen”
#24. “Look Over Your Shoulder”
By: Busta Rhymes featuring Kendrick Lamar
Busta Rhymes x Kendrick Lamar. That says enough on its own. For the first taste of Extinction Level Event 2: Wrath of God, his first album in almost nine years, Busta dropped a song that featured the first new Kendrick Lamar verse of 2020. Well, given that “Look Over Your Shoulder” was recorded back in 2016, it’s not exactly new, but it does have one of the best interpolations of a sample this year. Built around a sample of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” Busta and Kendrick trade verses about how they are the leaders of their respective generations and their place in the Black history books at large. The track features exactly what you would expect from these two rap legends: rapid-fire flows, nuanced takes on the art form of hip-hop, witty bars, etc. This is a case where predictability was the best route that could have possibly been taken. “Look Over Your Shoulder” may have been a standout, but Extinction Level Event 2: Wrath of God was incredible all the way through. Best Lyric/Moment: The use of the “I’ll Be There” sample.
#23. “Spell My Name”
By: Toni Braxton
Toni Braxton can do no wrong. As if her career wasn’t fruitful and illustrious enough, this year, she followed up her three-time Grammy-nominated Sex & Cigarettes album with Spell My Name, her tenth studio album. It was a full-bodied record that refused to stay in one corner of the R&B landscape. The title track, which features uncredited vocals from Johnny Yukon, was an immediate standout from the record. Beginning with a fluttery string arrangement before plunging into a majestic and atmospheric mixture of synths and percussion, “Spell My Name” is gorgeous. Toni’s voice is still as pristine as ever with her smoky lower range on full display without sacrificing the emotional heft of the performance. Ten albums and almost three decades in, Toni Braxton is still doing this music thing better than pretty much everybody else. Best Lyric/Moment: When she literally spells her name in the chorus.
#22. “Love Goes”
By: Sam Smith & Labrinth
This year Sam Smith released their third studio album, Love Goes, after multiple delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Labrinth spent most of 2020 riding high off of his Euphoria score soundtrack as “Still Don’t Know My Name” went viral on TikTok. Together, the two Brits teamed up for the title track from Sam’s new album. Easily the best ballad (at least for the first two-thirds of the song) on the album, “Love Goes” is a lush song about the ebbs and flows of love. The pair sing about changing people to fit their perception of love, falling in love with an idea instead of a person, and understanding and accepting that love will never be easy. It’s an ambitious track that swells from a sparse piano line to a triumphant closing orchestra of violin, viola, trumpet, French horn, and more. Sam and Labrinth have incredible chemistry and this song really speaks to the importance of putting trust in your collaborators. Labrinth took Sam to a place where they have never gone before, and it paid off brilliantly. Best Lyric/Moment: 3:14 onwards
#21. “Said Sum (Remix)”
By: Moneybagg Yo featuring City Girls and DaBaby
The verse heard around the world. Need I say more? Every rapper has that one verse that just *clicks,* and for JT of City Girls it was her opening verse on the remix of “Said Sum.” Lyrically, this song isn’t anything to write home about and the production is solid, but these performances. Moneybagg, Yung Miami, JT, and, yes, even DaBaby, all brought the energy and the fire needed to elevate the song. Across each rapper’s contribution is a level of consistency that has been lacking in some of these cuts that pile three or more rappers on one song. They’re feeding off of each other’s energy in a way that is simply infectious. Even though they’re addressing people who are “broke” in their eyes, the sentiment of refusing to give energy to people who are always talking without saying anything significant is still infinitely relatable. They all did their thing on this one. Best Lyric/Moment: “All these niggas wanna fuck JT (They do)” (You knew it was coming!)
By: Ivorian Doll
2020 was a watershed year for drill and for female rappers, and Ivorian Doll’s “Rumors” existed smack in the middle of those two lanes. It takes special skill to make a track that’s easy to dance to and also takes aim at nasty rumors that have been festering for a year or longer, but Ivorian Doll pulls it off. Produced by T1ONDABEAT, Ivorian rips across the beat with an inimitable charisma. From the hilarious “Messiiiii” to one seemingly breathless verse that doesn’t skimp on the bravado or explicitness, “Rumors” is everything. Ivorian Doll attacks rumors about the “STDs she’s got” and her being a “thot” by giving men a taste of their own medicine and ripping on their sexual prowess and ability with snarling humor. She has a really small discography right now, but “Rumors” makes it clear that she’s one to watch as we make our way into the new year. Best Lyric/Moment: “These niggas stay lying on their cock/Push your tongue in my box/Didn’t even get no slop/Couldn’t even fuck, dick soft”
#19. “May I”
By: Flo Milli
Flo Milli has had a great year. Her instantly iconic cadence and delightfully cocky personality morphed from one-off singles to her great debut mixtape, Ho, Why Is You Here? On, “May I,” an instant standout from the tape, Flo interpolates Snoop Dogg’s classic “Gin and Juice” into an anthem about what Flo Milli is all about: always her money, never the men. It’s really that simple. “May I” is also one of Flo Milli’s strongest showcases in terms of how easily she can switch between flows without losing that cool confident demeanor that the whole world fell in love with. Like “Weak,” which was also included on the mixtape, “May I” is a great example of a new sound from Flo Milli. Versatile’s production is absolutely infectious, from its blaring bass to what sounds like a mix between traditional percussion and filtered handclaps. Here’s to more bangers from Flo Milli in 2021. Best Lyric/Moment: “I’m wit’ your daddy gettin’ nasty like the 2 Live Crew/Word to Stevie, they can’t see me like Do I Do/And if you cross me, I won’t hesitate to shit on you, bitch”
#18. “Savage (Remix)”
By: Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé
“Queeeeen Bey, want no smoke with me!” The minute you hear that opening line coupled with J. White Did It’s instantly recognizable production, you can’t help but make way for the nearest dance floor. Easily the best remix of 2020, “Savage (Remix)” will also be the standard for all remixes going into the rest of the decade. Beyoncé transformed the sparse two-and-a-half-minute track into four minutes of sexy cocky fun. With four new verses from the Queen herself, it’s no wonder “Savage” floated to #1 and helped lift Megan’s career to new heights. Beyond Beyoncé’s excellent rapping and priceless background vocals, “Savage” is a song that is equal parts style and substance. This remix is basically a new song, but, most importantly, it builds on the skeleton of the original without sacrificing any of Megan’s spunk and sass. It really is something to experience the synergy that Beyoncé and Megan share on this track. Two H-Town Hot Girls from different generations joining forces on an anthem with the proceeds going to COVID-19 relief? What could be better! Best Lyric/Moment: When Beyoncé harmonizes with Megan on the final chorus
By: Kiana Ledé featuring Lucky Daye
Kiana Ledé’s KIKI had its bright spots and its low moments, but “Forfeit” was arguably the apex of the album. The slow-burning ballad is R&B through and through; Kiana and Lucky musically work through an argument with each begging for the other to “forfeit.” Structurally, the song centers Kiana as she has three verses, two choruses, and a bridge before Lucky comes in for a jaw-droppingly beautiful final verse. Delicate guitar and programmed percussion soundtrack their heartfelt paeans for peace. It’s one of the more subtle moments on KIKI, but it truly is gorgeous. Kiana and Lucky both deliver emotive vocal performances that sell the lyrics regardless of their simplicity. This may be the best R&B duet of the year. Key Lyric/Moment: Kiana’s run at 1:33
Maluma is Latin music’s resident bad boy. He’s the smooth playboy that gets whatever he wants whenever he wants. In light of this, it was genuinely interesting to see him go the contemplative and somber route on what just may be his greatest single yet, “Hawái.” Over a downtempo reggaeton beat courtesy of Ily Wonder, Jowan, Keityn, Kevin ADG, and Chan El Genio, Maluma goes metaphorical. He croons about a man whose ex-wife left him and the feelings of loneliness and heartbrokenness that follow him as he tries to convince her that he will always treat her the best. The chorus sees Maluma singing from the point of view of the man as he comes across his ex-wife and her new man on Instagram; it’s basically an accidental commentary on relationships and news in the age of social media. On a less meta level, the song bops. Best Lyric/Moment: The first line of the chorus.
#15. “Dead Man Walking”
By: Brent Faiyaz
Future may be widely seen as the King of Toxicity, but Brent Faiyaz has something to say. With his lyrics, Brent truly gives Future a run for his money. Over haunting production that’s held together by Brent’s cooing background vocals more than anything else, Brent croons about his money, his weed, his alluring power, and, uh, tramp stamps. Essentially the song is a kiss-off to women who don’t want to bend their lifestyles to fit Brent’s and his desires. The song takes its time to really hit its stride; exactly halfway through, these bombastic drums kick in and really drive home the almost militant chant of the chorus. Brent’s been killing it and “Dead Man Walking” is just another banger. Key Lyric/Moment: “Spend what you wanna (What you wanna)/Be who you wanna be (Die for you)/A young stunner (Die for you, stunner)/’Til I D-I-E (Lord, help me)”
H.E.R. has put out a plethora of singles this year. Even though we’re still waiting on whatever she deems her official debut album to be, H.E.R. isn’t skimping on the quality releases. “Damage,” her final single of the year, flips a sample of Herb Alpert’s “Making Love in the Rain” into a slinky almost-slow jam that doubles as a warning to her lover. If he doesn’t treat her right, she can do some damage to him; when their energies link up, they can do serious damage together. Between Cardiak’s top-notch production and Ant Clemons’ background vocals, the song is pretty much perfect. It’s H.E.R.’s sultry lower range that really sells the track. H.E.R. could very well be a big belter if she wanted to, but her decision to opt for restraint works to her advantage on this track. Let’s hope 2021 gifts us H.E.R.’s new album. Key Lyric/Moment: “No, he ain’t the one, it’s just for pleasure/Either learn me or I’m a lesson, gone.”
#13. “Monsters You Made”
By: Burna Boy featuring Chris Martin
Taken from his fifth studio album, Twice As Tall, Burna links up with Coldplay frontman Chris Martin on this intense mixture of rap and afrobeats. Burna rips into the colonized education system and really digs into the pain and frustration that he feels in terms of the way colonization has warped his people’s view of themselves. There’s a quiet anger pulsating through the backbone of this song. Burna fixates on one flow for most of the song which forces us to really focus on what he’s saying here. Chris Martin’s softer vocal performance provides a nice contrast to Burna’s gruffer tone, but it’s the intro that really nails it. “Monsters You Made” is introduced by a spoken bit from Ebikabowei Victor-Ben, former commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. He says, “If the government refuses to develop the region and continue the marginalization and injustice, the youths or the next people coming after us, I think, will be more brutal than what we have done.” Honestly, truer words may have never been put on wax in 2020. Key Lyric/Moment: “So fuck the classes in school/Fuck Mungo Park and the fool”
#12. “Pressure (Remix)”
By: Koffee featuring Buju Banton
She’s back! For Koffee’s second entry on this list, she pulls in at #12 for the Buju Banton remix of her excellent “Pressure.” Produced by PrexyJ and Ryan Bailey, Koffee and Buju trade verses about how differences in life experiences can be exacerbated by class and economic status. The reggae track blends classic elements of the genre with a splash of brass to really set things off. Buju’s trademark rough tone is the perfect complement to Koffee’s smoother and more gentle tone. In a year in which a global pandemic disproportionately impacted communities of color because of the existing racist economic and medical complexes around the world, the lyrics of this song couldn’t be timelier or more apt. We truly are all under pressure in some capacity. Koffee is a visionary, and with every release, she keeps proving how incredible her mind is. Key Lyric/Moment: “If yuh poor, trouble tek you/When yuh rich it nuh settle”
#11. “Touch Me (Remix)”
By: Victoria Monét featuring Kehlani
Oh, look! Another remix! Both Victoria (Jaguar) and Kehlani (It Was Good Until It Wasn’t) dropped great albums this year; they really helped hold it down for R&B in 2020. This remix of “Touch Me,” sees Victoria turning this tender bedroom slow burner into a sultry sapphic duet. Written and produced by Kehlani, Vic, D’Mile, and Babyface, “Touch Me” is so good because of Kehlani and Victoria’s chemistry above anything else. The minute Kehlani slides onto the track, there’s this burst of energy that was missing from the original. The best part of this lovefest is the simplicity of the chorus. It’s a series of very clear and direct demands that couldn’t be more sensual. Best Lyric/Moment: “I’ll stop rockin’ nails for you”
Brilliant. That’s what this song is, every last second of it. There really isn’t much more to say. On the second single from B7, which I named the fifth best album of 2020, Brandy sings of how intense love can cause her to go manic. The track is like a diving pool of background vocals. In fact, those backing harmonies are the instrumental. Brandy’s vocal choices are immaculate on this track, she delivers the perfect blend of a menacing, lovestruck, and melancholic tone to create this beautiful track. LaShawn Daniels, DJ Camper, and Brandy wrote one hell of a track with this one. There’s not a single song this year that sounds like “Borderline” and there likely never will be one. That spirit of innovation is what elevates the track. It’s dark and vulnerable and Brandy like we’ve never heard her before. She uses the full extent of her vocal prowess shifting from whispery vocals to full-bodied belts with unparalleled agility. Oh, and those runs? C’mon now, you already know! Key Lyric/Moment: Her run on “to the floor” at 2:57.
#9. “Lucky Me”
By: Big Sean
2020 marked the proper return of Big Sean. After a few guest verses here and there and a collaborative album with Metro Boomin, Big Sean dropped his first solo studio album since 2017’s I Decided. Detroit 2 was an expansive, if at times cluttered, love letter to his city, and “Lucky Me” was one of the best joints on the record. Hit-Boy and DJ Dahi’s chugging production recalls old-school hip-hop in the first half before transforming into the menacing bass and 808s that soundtrack the rapid-fire second half which house brilliant internal rhyme schemes like “soul/solace/soldier” and “covid/covert/code.” One of the most personal songs of Sean’s career, he digs into his health issues, relationship tribulations, and more things that he’s never opened up about before on wax or in interviews. It’s a dense track that still finds a way to be easily digestible and catchy as hell. Key Lyric/Moment: “I bet on myself, ain’t no way my hand’s folding/What’s a limitation? Fuck your validation”
#8. “Pig Feet”
By: Terrace Martin & Denzel Curry featuring Kamasi Washington, G Perico & Daylyt
Often, it feels like recent protest-inspired songs try harder to be uplifting anthems as opposed to really digging into the grit, anger, and passion that underscore the actual protests. Terrace Martin and Denzel Curry’s “Pig Feet” is a brash, and, at times, erratic fusion of jazz, rock, and hip-hop that somersaults through varying emotions with an intensity that never wavers. The song shifts between moments of synergy and moments of dissonance that are sonically representative of the relationship between America and Black people. This is what music is all about — an unadulterated look into the complexity of human emotion and the incredible art that can be birthed from it. Key Lyric/Moment: “Nas say we need one mic and they shot the brown one“
“René” is an incredible autobiographical eight-minute song. The most recent winner of Song of the Year at the Latin Grammys, the Calle 13 rapper’s riveting solo single is the most poetic song of the year. The track’s production is so sparse, it’s almost non-existent. A striking piano and conga outro color this track — a whirlwind of revelations and a careful unpacking of pivotal moments of Residente’s life. The Puerto Rican rapper adopts a stream-of-consciousness flow as he tackles the murder of one of his childhood friends, his divorce, his 2009 controversy with the then-governor of Puerto Rico, and more. In the midst of quarantine, a lot of people’s depression and anxiety were exacerbated by the solidarity and “René” sees Residente musically working through that depression on this gorgeous track. This isn’t a track you dance to or put on to pass the time, but it is probably the most gratifying listen of the year. Key Lyric/Moment: The conga solo in the outro.
#6. “Hit Different”
By: SZA featuring Ty Dolla $ign
She’s back. Sometimes it feels like Ctrl dropped last week and sometimes it feels like it dropped a decade ago, but “Hit Different” hints that her sophomore album is closer than we think. SZA links up with R&B and hip-hop’s favorite background vocalist/hook boy, Ty Dolla $ign, for this slinky slice of greatness. With The Neptunes on the silky production, SZA flexes her singular ability to describe an intoxicating relationship with an emotionally distant partner. Can you understand everything SZA is saying on first, second, or even third listen? Well… not exactly, but it works on this track. We can’t understand SZA in the same way that she can’t understand why she keeps coming back to a partner who she is aware is not healthy for her. Ty’s smooth hook plays well against SZA’s slightly anguished verses for one killer song. Key Lyric/Moment: The entire second verse.
By: Disclosure featuring Kehlani & Syd
Disclosure rarely misses. Two bangers with Sam Smith and killer tracks with Gregory Porter, Lorde, The Weeknd, and Miguel. Now, the British dance duo can add Kehlani and Syd to that list. Taken from their Grammy-nominated Energy album, Disclosure, Kehlani, and Syd definitely show out on this smooth track. Despite the sunny title, this isn’t actually a celebratory song. The decidedly downtempo and introspective dance track piles on the melancholy sonically and lyrically. Structurally, Kehlani can be seen as the other ex who also wants to check up on their old flame or an extension of Syd’s reflection and yearning. The dreamy electro-R&B vibe is right out of Aaliyah’s playbook and it’s oh-so-pleasing to the ear. The chorus melody is particularly beautiful because the uptick in the melody actually reflects the upwards inflection of questions in spoken conversation. It’s a subtle touch that makes the whole song. Key Lyric/Moment: “But it can’t hurt to check up on an ex, not to flex/But to put the hurt to rest, put maturity to the test”
#4. “Industry Games”
From the brooding trap-inspired chime-like intro to the very last second of this joint, “Industry Games” is terrific. The newly Grammy-nominated rapper (she scored a nomination for Best New Artist) rips into the phonies in the music industry on the first proper track on her Industry Games EP. We literally got to see CHIKA grow from freestyling on Twitter to the Grammy stage, so if anyone has something to say about posers who are in it for the clout and money instead of for the love of the art, it’s her. This song rests on CHIKA’s air-tight flow; the barely-there production provides just enough support, but her slick jabs throughout her bars do the heavy lifting. What’s more? She harmonizes with herself throughout the track showing off yet another side of her immense musicality. Key Lyric/Moment: “Can do this shit while I’m asleep ’cause I write it/Watch how these niggas be so quick to bite it”
By: Lianne La Havas
Even though it feels like title tracks should be the crux of their albums, sometimes it feels like artists miss the mark in that respect. Lianne La Havas is an eponymous album, but if it were to have a title track, it would probably be “Bittersweet.” Drums, guitar, keyboard, and a sample of Isaac Hayes’ “Medley: Ike’s Rap Part III / Your Love Is So Doggone Good” color this gorgeous track. It sounds like a summer rainstorm (wink, wink) — a cloudy thundering of raw emotion with the rays of sunlight and brighter days peeking out from behind. It honestly sounds like we’re witnessing Lianne having a breakthrough on this track as she walks into a new chapter of her life. Every chord is bursting with soul; it’s not a pastiche of soul music, it’s a genuine retelling of what’s going on in the depths of Lianne’s heart. Key Lyric/Moment: The first half of every chorus.
#2. “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?”
By: Mickey Guyton
Country music is Black music. Never forget that. Mickey Guyton recently became the first Black woman country artist to perform her own song at the Academy of Country Music Awards and she earned her first Grammy nomination (Best Country Song) for “Black Like Me” this year. However, this tender heart-breaking ballad about gender discrimination is the real showstopper. “What Are You Gonna Tell Her” is built around piano and synths with Mickey’s exquisite vocal performance laying on all the sincerity and pain she can muster. The song is built around examples of white lies people tell young women in their childhood in the verses, while in the chorus Mickey asks questions to the people who perpetuate those fibs: “What are you gonna tell her when she figures out/That all this time you built her up just so the world can let her down?” It’s a disarming song that covers the brutal reality of the music industry, and life in general for, women, specifically Black women. Next stop: Mickey’s debut album. Key Lyric/Moment: “Do you tell her not to fight?/Is it worth the sacrifice/Can you look her in the face and promise her that things will change?”
#1. “Lost One”
By: Jazmine Sullivan
Honestly, words can’t encapsulate the greatness of “Lost One.” Our first taste of Jazmine Sullivan’s upcoming new project, Heaux Tales, “Lost One” is a brief and atmospheric ballad built around a murky guitar loop that sounds like it’s underwater. Jazmine’s rasp tells a million stories in this song. When she slightly crescendos on that earnest “Please don’t forget about me” line? Perfection. The song blends inflections of country music with Jazmine’s foundation of soul music to create something truly special. “Lost One” is raw. It feels like we’re peeking in on a moment of vulnerability that we shouldn’t be seeing, but we can’t look away. The simplicity of the lyrics coupled with the casual displays of immense vocal control and skill make for the perfect tease for what is sure to be one of the best musical projects of 2021. Key Lyric/Moment: The whole thing.