This year, I listened to more music than any other, either a way to deal with or escape from the maelstrom of events that this year unleashed. These are 50 of the songs that made it just a little bit better.
50. Ariana Grande, “pov”
49. Little Mix, “Happiness”
48. Zara Larsson, “Love Me Land”
47. U.S. Girls, “4 American Dollars”
46. Sada Baby, “Whole Lotta Choppas (Remix) [feat. Nicki Minaj]”
45. TWICE, “I Can’t Stop Me”
44. Megan Thee Stallion, “Body”
43. Shawn Mendes, “Teach Me How To Love”
42. Billie Eilish, “my future”
41. Miley Cyrus, “Plastic Hearts”
40. Miel, “Tourist Season”
39. Lianne La Havas, “Sour Flower”
38. Poppy, “Anything Like Me”
37. Taylor Swift, “marjorie”
36. HAIM, “I Know Alone”
35. MARINA, “Man’s World”
34. Taylor Swift, “gold rush”
33. Taylor Swift, “the last great american dynasty”
32. Jessie Ware, “Remember Where You Are”
31. Kylie Minogue, “Magic”
30. Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande, “Rain On Me”
29. CupcakKe, “Discounts”
28. Fiona Apple, “Shameika”
27. HAIM, “3 AM”
26. Chloe x Halle, “Do It”
25. Megan Thee Stallion, “Girls in the Hood”
24. The Weeknd, “In Your Eyes”
23. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Comeback (feat. Bleachers)”
22. The Chicks, “Julianna Calm Down”
21. Lianne La Havas, “Bittersweet”
20. Chloe x Halle, “Ungodly Hour”
19. Rina Sawayama, “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?”
18. The Chicks, “Gaslighter”
17. Taylor Swift, “betty”
16. Taylor Swift, “ivy”
15. Róisín Murphy, “Murphy’s Law”
14. Yukika, “NEON 1989”
13. Rina Sawayama, “XS”
12. Dua Lipa, “Physical”
11. Kylie Minogue, “Miss A Thing”
10. Dua Lipa, “Break My Heart”
Written with who it was written about, “Break My Heart” is a pop song that takes an odd lens: It’s about a future depressing event, despite the present being good. “Happy & Sad” by Kacey Musgraves does something similar, but the emotions are felt at the same time. Here, Lipa wonders, “Am I falling in love with the one who will break my heart?” Interpolating “Another One Bites the Dust” sounds like a hard task, but Lipa floats over the quirky instrumental filled with cowbells (which bumped it up a few notches) and the dramatic “Oh no!”s. It’s a bona fide grower, unassuming on first listen but sinks its teeth in a few days later.
9. Taylor Swift, “cardigan”
Taylor Swift’s surprise album folklore broke the trend of “Usually Bad Swift Lead Singles That Don’t Represent the Whole Album.” “Shake It Off,” while catchy, was not a good introduction to one of Swift’s best albums, “Look What You Made Me Do” was a good diss track but the quick sonic change was disruptive to some, and… We don’t talk about “ME!” But “cardigan,” with its quiet nature and absurdly good storytelling, was a highlight of folklore, and continues to be one of its best tracks. The listener is completely blind to the “Teenage Love Triangle” on first listen, so the cardigan call-back line on “betty” is especially intriguing. It features one of Swift’s best outros, and inter-song inside references, like repeating “When you are young, they assume you know nothing” before turning it around: “But I knew you’d linger like a tattoo kiss / I knew you’d haunt all of my what-ifs.”
8. Jessie Ware, “Soul Control”
The instantly recognizable intro beat hints at an uptempo dance anthem to follow, and it does. Ware is sensual over the pre-chorus, chanting “Soul control, that’s how you want it / Soul control, that’s how I give it to you.” Of the album, she says, “I want people to have sex to it,” and while this is one of the most energetic numbers, it’s the flirtiest. “Baby, it’s automatic / We touch and it feels like…” she says in the chorus reminiscent of a Jazzersice class, before getting cut off with a “Woo!” The song is so fun and joyous, by the time it’s over, you’ll just want to play it again.
7. Rina Sawayama, “Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys)”
Exuding confidence and wit, the slinky early 2000s “Comme Des Garcons” from Rina Sawayama is a braggadocious yet satirical song about mens’ double standards. “The idea that the socially acceptable version of confidence is in acting ‘like the boys’, otherwise as a woman you get called a bitch,” Rina said. The song has a play on words: “Comme Des Garçons,” translated, is “Like the boys,” but it’s also a luxury fashion brand, joining Miu Miu, Prada, and Mugler, which Rina name-drops in the song. “Excuse my ego, can’t go incognito / Every time you see me, it’s like winning big in Reno,” she almost whispers. When Rina is repeating “I’m so confident” over and over, it’s hard as a listener to not match her energy.
6. Taylor Swift, “august”
The silent grower of folklore, “august” starts off with perfect summer imagery to highlight the laid-back and atmospheric song: “Salt air, and the rust on your door / I never needed anything more.” The second of the imaginary “Teenage Love Triangle,” “august” is about the other woman, having an affair with someone who has a girlfriend. The relationship was quick, but fun while it lasted, as evidenced by the lines “But I can see us lost in the memory / August slipped away into a moment in time.” But, it soured, and the narrator laments, “So much for summer love and saying ‘us’ / ’Cause you weren’t mine to lose.” The song is described as the “Getaway Car” and “Cruel Summer” of folklore, due to its fantastic production by Jack Antonoff and instantly catchy lines. While August “sipped away like a bottle of wine” in Swift’s head, “august” will remain one of the best songs she’s written.
5. Kylie Minogue, “Say Something”
“We’re a million miles apart, in a thousand ways” are Minogue’s first words on her comeback single, “Say Something.” Written September of 2019, she couldn’t have known how applicable her words would be during July 2020 when it was released, as she was singing about a distant lover, but the denotation remains the same. Over a sparkly beat she describes as “intergalactic disco,” Minogue set the scene for the vibe of her upcoming album, aptly titled DISCO. Straying away from the country-infused Golden (2018), this song represented a comeback to the feel-good era of dance-pop Minogue has usually been providing her entire career. But the song is more than the quick anthems that Fever provided, it’s a sonic journey that ends in an outro so powerful, she invited a choir to sing along with it on her “Infinite Disco” concert livestream. It was a welcome return to Minogue, who showed she can still bring the trends of the past to the future in an exciting way.
4. Jessie Ware, “Spotlight”
Taking an elegant approach to the 2020 disco throwback, “Spotlight” by Jessie Ware is a slow-burning, infectious dance anthem like “Murphy’s Law.” Wile the energy of “Soul Control” is energizing, Ware smartly begins What’s Your Pleasure? with this song, whose momentum builds over time. The full version starts with a dramatic intro, then cuts in with a hooky instrumental. By the time the last chorus hits, the atmosphere is so enveloping that it sounds like Ware is in the center of a grand play when she whispers the poetic “And if a touch is just a touch, then a touch just ain’t enough / Tell me what it means, tell me you’re in love / Tell me when I’ll get more than a dream of you.” The last bit, especially, seems like her voice is floating away.
3. Yukika, “Soul Lady”
Like “Soul Control,” this song’s energy is gripping from the start. What is so impressive about “Soul Lady,” — the title track from K-pop singer Yukika’s debut album — is how meticulously it is crafted: details are thought-out and placed well, each layer of the song comes together flawlessly in a shimmering, glittery package. Coming from Japan originally but moving to Korea to start her music career, Yukika makes a play on words, saying “I am now a Seoul/Soul Lady.” Complete with a slow, dramatic, ’80s bridge, the song is delightfully retro yet fresh-sounding. Her production team on this song and throughout her record have done their research, and it shows. “I guess you can tell,” she sings. “I’ve been studying hard.” I’ve been late because of this song, sitting in the car waiting for it to end so I can hear every last drop of the pure serotonin it offers.
2. Dua Lipa, “Levitating”
“Levitating” was the clear fan favorite once Future Nostalgia was released, and it’s easy to see why. The bouncy, wobbly synths and handclaps bookmark the sing-a-long chorus, which produced an instantly funny new pet name: “sugarboo.” “I got you, moonlight / You’re my starlight / I need you all night / Come on dance with me / I’m levitating,” Lipa sings over an airy instrumental, interspersed with a voicebox effect. It’s a fantastic, upbeat song, one that you can tell Lipa had fun recording. It’s a shame there are no clubs or parties to listen to this in, as the bridge “My love is like a rocket, watch it blast off / And I’m feeling so electric, dance my ass off” would be a hit.
1. Rina Sawayama, “Dynasty”
When you press play on SAWAYAMA, and “Dynasty”’s grand intro begins to swell, you know you’re in for an epic ride. “I’m losing myself / in the darkness of the world,” she begins. “Catch me before I fall.” The ominous song is talking about family trauma, and inherited mental disorders. Rina feels trapped within her bloodline, feeling the pain her parents felt and not wanting to follow the same mistakes. “Mother and father, you gave me life / I nearly gave it away for the sake of my sanity,” she says, referencing her difficult time in college. “Now it’s my time to make things right / And if I fail, then I am my dynasty,” she sings before she embarks on the intense bridge, her high notes soaring along with a guitar solo. This song is a masterclass in production and how effective a bridge can be utilized. “You need that third element to take you away from where you’ve been so you’re so excited to get it back,” superstar producer Jack Antonoff said of a song’s bridge. He was referencing Taylor Swift’s “Lover,” but is especially applicable here. Once the final chorus hits, there’s so much energy and tension in the song building up where it gets released so that even listening to the song is a workout. “Would you break the chain with me?” she pleads at the end, setting the underlying tone for the album going forward.