Just weeks shy of 2020’s grand finale, let’s just say it: This year was trash. Much of the world spent the year huddled indoors, sheltering away from political strife, economic anxiety, and a dark health crisis that made us question whether we’d ever see the light again. But in our homes, many of us found solace in the one thing that even a raging pandemic can’t disrupt: music.
It was in these intimate spaces that music carried us through the year’s many highs and lows. Traveling wasn’t an option, so we let songs transport us instead. Living rooms became sweaty dance floors; ceiling lights functioned as shimmering disco balls; bedrooms became our dearest confidants, holding our tears and quiet contemplations. Artists reminded us that we can still feel connected, even in isolation.
The unique circumstances of the year also led to a fight against monotony. Artists left the confines of their sound, experimenting and taking risks (indie Taylor Swift? R&Bhangra?). The need for something new and fresh also led to many discovering new types of music from all of the world, opening their ears to music beyond their usual palate (Afrobeats! K-pop!).
Despite being one of the most underrated and under-appreciated genres in the game, R&B absolutely flourished in 2020. If you weren’t singing love songs (or breakup anthems — R&B goes either way) at the top of your lungs, you weren’t doing it right because the sangers (if you know, you know) made a real comeback this year. Jazmine Sullivan ended her five-year hiatus with “Lost One,” Ella Mai gave us all the feels with “Not Another Love Song,” and Giveon brought us to tears with the emotional journey that was TAKE TIME. With Delight, EXO and SuperM member Baekhyun delivered yet another serving of ear “Candy.” Brandy made good on the other B7 that we’ve been waiting for, plus Usher reminded us why he is widely considered the king of the sound. And they said that R&B was dead.
As such, selecting the best songs of the year was a near impossible herculean task. Though this list isn’t at all comprehensive, it aims to give a sense of the spectrum of delicious offerings of this year. Sorry COVID, but you’ll never take away our taste.
Ahead, in no particular order, are some of the best tracks of the year, spanning continents, genres, and vibes.
Victoria Monét, "Jaguar"
Singer-songwriter Victoria Monet is in her element among the elements with “Jaguar,” a playful and sexy groove about taking a walk on the wild side. The song is perfect from start to finish, but it’s the incredible chorus that will quite literally take your breath away. Supersonicpussycatjustlikeajaguarsilkyblacksoletmeclimbyourwoodlikethatyouvegotninetimestocomehitthat — say that five times fast. - Ineye Komonibo
Rina Sawayama, “XS”
It’s hard to pick a standout off of British-Japanese artist Rina Sawayama’s debut album, SAWAYAMA (it’s that good) but “XS” is a good place to start. While the chameleonic singer hits everything from moody Evanescence rock to nu-metal, “XS” is pure Britney pop — that is, anti-capitalist Britney (we’d love to see it). It’s fun and satirical without sounding hollow. Even when Sawayama is dripping with irony, it’s with meticulous care and emotion. So when you hear her at her most sincere, like on B-side “Bad Friend,” it hits twice as deep. - Natalie Morin
Burna Boy ft. Stormzy, "Real Life"
Following up the success of African Giant was a tall order, but Burna Boy made it happen with Twice As Tall (the spiritual sibling to the popular 2019 record), and “Real Life” easily tops the list of tracks without question. The Afrobeats hero teams up with Stormzy for the mellow but weighty tune, musing over his unique journey to the top of the music game. Vibes, but make them mean something. - IK
All hail King Taemin! Second generation K-pop fans will always know him as SHINee’s baby, but Taemin isn’t so little anymore, and “Criminal” proves it. The sultry, dangerously smooth track sees Taem leaning into his wicked side, embracing the darkness in a way we’ve never seen him do before. If you weren’t a stan before, you most definitely are now. - IK
The Aces, “Daydream”
It’s a feat to write a transportive song, and even more so in an era when getting away isn’t much of an option. But The Aces (sisters Cristal and Alisa Ramirez, Katie Henderson, and McKenna Petty) succeeded with “Daydream,” and with it giving us the summer we never quite had. Close your eyes and let the expansive, sparkling anthem take you on a windows down, radio up desert drive. - NM
Dua Lipa, “Levitating”
There are some songs that absolutely require a dark, sweaty dance floor in order to be properly enjoyed — this year made that abundantly clear. This is to say that when Dua Lipa’s second album Future Nostalgia, a no-ballad disco-pop paradise, came along — and especially the groovy “Levitating” — we were robbed of that catharsis. But even so, Lipa gave us a reason to dance, to feel sexy, to feel like a “female alpha.” So when we do finally get out on that dance floor, we’ll be ready. - NM
WayV, “Bad Alive”
2020 was the year that I did a deep dive back into K-pop after taking some time away, but when I decided to return to it, it wasn’t even a Korean-speaking group that did me in. WayV, the Chinese leg of SM Entertainment’s supergroup NCT, pulled me back with a quickness. “Bad Alive” is so good that it hurts, effortlessly leaning into the abject horniness that K-pop so often avoids. (Look, we’re all grown here.) - IK
JoJo, “What U Need”
In case you haven’t heard, JoJo is back. And now, at 29, — 16 years after her debut No. 1 song, “Leave (Get Out)” and after nearly a decade of being barred from releasing music — the R&B singer delivers her new album, Good To Know, with both the emotional depth and boldness of someone who’s done being silenced. Lead single “What U Need” sees a woman who knows what she has to offer, and won’t take anything less than her worth. If pre-comeback JoJo was a lovely rosé, we’re now sipping a full-bodied red — and after drinking in the rest of the album, it’s hard not to feel pleasantly buzzed. -NM
Odunsi the Engine ft. Amaarae, DETO BLACK, Gigi Atlantis, “Body Count”
If the clubs had been open, I would have been dancing on someone’s son with “Body Count” playing in the background. Pandemic be damned, the song still sets the mood, and it’s simply too good to be left behind in 2020. DJs, you’ve been warned. - IK
TWICE, “I Can’t Stop Me”
When it comes to TWICE’s singles, the K-pop girl group rarely miss, which is a major reason why they’re as insanely popular in Asia as they are. But while the nonet’s sound tends to be airy, crisp, and saccharine, this year there’s been a bolder ferocity behind TWICE’s releases: first with this summer’s “More & More,” and most recently “I Can’t Stop Me” off of their second full-length album, Eyes Wide Open. The song still shines with the group’s signature sparkle, but with a weighty, fierce power of women with both feet firmly planted on the ground. It’s thrilling to hear the determination of those who only see a path forward. -NM
Megan Thee Stallion ft. Beyoncé, “Savage”
Y’all really owe Houston a lot. We gave you Beyoncé, we gave you Megan thee Stallion, and then we gave you the Bey x Meg collaboration that set the summer on fire. You know what they say: everything’s bigger in Texas. Especially when the Houston Hotties are involved. - IK
5 Seconds Of Summer, “Wildflower”
Australian pop rock band 5 Seconds Of Summer dropped Calm in late March, right as the world came to a standstill and fear of the pandemic truly started to sink in. Planting the album in a time of colorlessness, however, allowed vibrant single “Wildflower” to bloom in a more striking way than it ever could have before. As our nostalgia and wanting have made us increasingly feel empty, this song reminds us what it’s like to feel that kind of want. The good kind. - NM
Lady Gaga ft. Ariana Grande, “Rain On Me”
Women are so often pitted against each other, and taught to believe that because it’s a man’s world, there isn’t much room for us at the top. But this year, somehow, as many distanced themselves from each other, women musicians came together. We saw it in rap (manifesting more women posse cuts in 2021), but also in pop, as Lady Gaga folded Ariana Grande into her delightfully unhinged, fantastical world of Chromatica (as well as B-side “Sour Candy,” featuring Korean powerhouse BLACKPINK). This summer’s dance pop “Rain On Me” not only let us experience the full power of two divas playing to their strengths, but also gifted us our 2020 motto: “I’d rather be dry but at least I’m alive.” - NM
Priya Ragu, “Good Love 2.0”
Who knew that R&B and South Indian sounds could actually lend to a perfect musical blend? Priya Ragu did, changing the game by infusing the polar opposite sounds in “Good Love 2.0.” The result is a sonic game changer so uniquely groovy that it feels kind of ridiculous that R&Bhangra didn’t exist before this. - IK
Doja Cat, “CyberSex”
Love her or cancel her — Doja Cat’s power is just too strong, and it’s all Hot Pink’s fault. Every song on the album is a banger, but “CyberSex” sees the rapper/singer at her campiest, tapping into her theatrical side for this deliciously fun romp about...you know...sex. - IK
Lous and the Yakuza, “Amigo"
You never quite know where Congolese-Belgian singer Lous and the Yakuza (née Marie-Pierra Kakoma) is going to go. Her debut album Gore, released in October, ebbs and flows through trap, hip-hop, R&B, and afrobeats. But that sonic adventure is exactly what makes her music so captivating. Similarly, the allure of “Amigo” is its contradictions — despite sounding upbeat and light on its feet, it describes a feeling of helplessness: “La vie n’fait pas d’cadeaux,” she sings, meaning “nothing in life comes easy.” - NM
Taylor Swift, “this is me trying”
Taylor Swift’s surprise quarantine drop, folklore, feels like a deep breath. We’ve always seen Swift at her most meticulous — which has led to over a decade of killer country and pop music — but the non-biographical nature of this album, mixed with the unexpected added time afforded by quarantine, allowed the singer to take risks and experiment both sonically and vocally in ways we haven’t seen from her before. Take “this is me trying,” a song in the particularly strong middle stretch of folklore. The track leans almost indie, soothingly blurring the usual crisp edges of her voice and highlights her strongest asset — her illustrative storytelling — as she sings from the perspective of someone with addictions. - NM
Billie Eilish, “my future”
Billie Eilish takes a detour from her typical dark-sided energy for the quietly introspective “my future,” singing thoughtfully about her personal journey towards self-love and self-acceptance. - IK
Monsta X, "Love Killa"
Everyone’s got their K-pop faves, but let’s stop sleeping on Monsta X next year, folks. Fatal Love was a can’t-miss album within the landscape; every verse in the impactful lead single “Love Killa” demonstrated exactly why these six idols can’t be underestimated. The standout track sees the group getting their grown man on, delivering nonstop sex appeal through effortless falsettos and body rolls. Face it: nobody does sexy like MX does. - IK
Chloe x Halle, "“Ungodly Hour”
It’s damn near impossible to pick just one song to spotlight on ChloexHalle’s second studio album; the project is quite literally without a flaw. But if I were absolutely forced to choose, Ungodly Hour’s title track would deserve to stand in the sun. The glittering and uptempo song showcases the duo’s truly angelic vocals as well as their unique ear for layering harmonies. And wouldn’t you know it — it sounds even better live. That’s just the ChloexHalle effect, folks. - IK
The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights”
Canadian singer The Weeknd may have been snubbed at the Grammys, but that hasn’t dulled the shine of “Blinding Lights,” the second single off of his fourth EP, After Hours. The Weeknd in his moody, sultry R&B feels is one thing — but the singer grabbing you by the collar and taking you along his retro, vibey, high-adrenaline car ride? That’s worth cranking up the volume for. - NM
SZA ft. Ty Dolla $ign, “Hit Different”
After three long years out of the spotlight, SZA made her glorious return with “Hit Different,” another toxic love song for us to vibe out to. Chaotic yet romantic, the R&B single reminded us just how much we missed Solana after all this time (and how much the culture seriously needs another album from her). - IK
After a big year in 2019 in which she won a Grammy for Best R&B album (H.E.R.) and Best R&B performance (“Best Part” feat. Daniel Caesar), the bespectacled H.E.R. filled this year with a trickle of singles, including Black Lives Matter protest song “I Can’t Breathe,” encouraging anthem “Sometimes,” and the coy “Comfortable.” The brassy, smooth “Damage,” which samples the classic 1980s record "Making Love in the Rain" by Herb Alpert, Lisa Keith and Janet Jackson, however, is especially beautiful in its vulnerability. - NM
Run The Jewels ft. Pharrell and Zack de la Rocha, “JU$T”
When Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike and EL-P recorded RTJ4 — an album brimming with the kind of scathing political and social commentary the duo is known for — in the months leading up to the Black Lives Matter protests they likely couldn’t have predicted how necessary and relevant their messages would be. But Run The Jewels can’t predict the future: they just constantly have their fingers on the pulse of the nation, and most importantly, aren’t afraid to speak truth to power. The epic collaboration “JU$T,” a song that likens the dirty grip of money and capitalism to slavery, plays to every person’s strength: EL-P’s playful cadence, Killer Mike’s hard-hitting bars, Pharrell’s melodic timbre, and Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack De La Rocha’s, well — rage. - NM
Not even a global catastrophe could stop South Korean juggernaut BTS from climbing upward. After clinching another two No.1 albums with February’s Map Of The Soul: 7 and later with BE, they added two No .1 songs to their historic accolades, and most recently a 2021 Grammy nomination. But even as they continue to prove their superhuman abilities, the septet never fails to share their raw, vulnerable humanity. MOTS7’s standout “Black Swan” does so with a rather contemplative darkness. BE’s “Dis-ease,” however, tackles the very reliable feeling of burnout with rollicking energy and a bit of clever wordplay (“work” in Korean, 일, sounds like the English word “ill”). The old-school hip-hop track is classic BTS: expertly mixing fun with frustration and a dash of social commentary. But the real catharsis comes in “Dis-ease”’s explosive final drop, finally leaving us spent. Time for a day off. - NM
Meet Me @ The Altar, "Garden”
Pop punk trio Meet Me @ The Altar adds some necessary seasoning to the alternative rock scene, gleefully kicking down the door with "Garden." It's an energetic surrogate to genre's typical emo mood, but the song will have you screaming at the top of your lungs and perfecting your air guitar solo nonetheless. - IK
Bad Bunny, “Yo Perreo Sola”
Many men like to posture as advocates for gender equality, but Puerto Rican singer and rapper Bad Bunny gave women the ultimate gift this year: space. With YHLQMDLG’s “Yo Perreo Sola,” (“I dance alone” in Spanish), the artist gave independent women who specifically love to dance alone in the club a reggaeton anthem. The performance art-like visual for the track further illustrates its message as Bad Bunny dances in full drag along with a diverse group of women and closes with this PSA: “If she doesn’t want to dance with you, respect her, she dances alone.” - NM
Pink Sweat$ “Ride With Me”
R&B crooner Pink Sweat$’ usual offerings are sexy, mellow jams that are best paired with a quiet night in and a glass of wine. “Ride With Me,” released as a standalone single in April, is a bouncy, catchy bop where the singer uses only the happy notes. Get you a man who can do both! - NM
Luke James, “Lambo”
“Lambo” is a song that’s haunted me since I first heard its opening notes, hypnotizing me with its melodiously dreamlike instrumental. Add Luke James’ otherworldly falsetto to the mix, and it felt almost like a spell had been cast. Almost a year later, I’m still under the sway of the R&B singer’s magic. - IK
Listen on Spotify: