What a year. It’s been an interesting task ranking the year’s best songs in an annum so devoid of normality. So often, a song is loved for the memories it’s attached to: the many nights out where you wait for the DJ to drop your tune, the sweat pouring out of you as you hear it played live.
COVID has stolen those memories from us this year, but from talking to so many of you about how you’re getting through, the brilliant adaptability of humanity has shone through. Fun has still been had – in new and innovative ways! – and music has still been played. Whether out of your phone in a pint glass down the park or through a crappy Bluetooth speaker in the kitchen (“HEY GOOGLE, PLAY ‘WAP'”), there have been tracks that have united and excited our minds in a time when it was needed the most.
To create our list, we asked our brilliant team of contributors to vote for their favourite songs, ranked in order. Some tracks came up time and time again, others, stealthy little gems, voted by one impassioned person. After much debate, here it is is: our songs of 2020. We cannot wait for them to be played loud and proud at a venue/festival/club/party near you, but until then stick on some headphones, and enjoy.
Words: Charlie Gunn, Emma Holbrook, Alison Craig, Becca Fergus, Jemima Skala, Gemma Samways, Anna Matheson, Jenessa Williams
45Beabadoobee – ‘Care’
2020 has been Bea Kristi’s year. Having amassed a following of dedicated followers over the last couple of years with her brand of bedroom pop, ‘Care’ was the first hint of what was to come from her debut album – a thrashier, grungier sound, lending from her 90s heroes and cementing Beabadoobee as a force in the Dirty Hit family. CG.
44Ms Banks – ‘Novikov’
“Took a n**** out to Novikov/ then I took him home just to eat the box”. Forget ‘WAP’ for a minute, Ms Banks wrote 2020’s low-key female empowerment bop. A track about treating your man to a posh dinner and then taking him home to, er, eat a little more, ‘Novikov’ was a randy, tongue-in-cheek anthem from South London’s classiest wordsmith. CG.
43Shamir – ‘On My Own’
Opener to Shamir’s seventh album in six years, ‘On My Own’ stutters and jolts with distorted unease – the biting anxiety of lockdown coursing through its alt-pop veins. “I don’t mind to live all on my own/ And I never did”, this indie breakup song is a reminder that all things will pass and provided you love yourself, you’ll be absolutely fine. CG.
42Jehnny Beth – ‘Flower’
Dark, moody and a good indicator of Jehnny Beth‘s solo work, ‘Flower’ – much like Beth’s book of erotica – is a brooding track about female pleasure and enigmatic lovers. 2020 saw Beth break away from Savages, to release a “personal project” full of introspective songs about the darkness within us all. ‘Flower’ was one of its sexy gems. CG.
41Chloe x Halle – ‘Ungodly Hour’
Any protegés of Beyoncé were bound to be held to an impossible standard, but that’s no trouble for Chloe x Halle. ‘Ungodly Hour’ is a glossy, sultry triumph: hypnotising vocal runs and harmonies swirl around lush production, courtesy of Disclosure. This arrangement of synths and pulsing bass atop smooth jazz pianos perfectly shows off the sisters’ vocals – evoking FKA twigs and yes, Bey herself – and for a track supposedly sacrilegious, it sounds nothing short of heavenly. EH
40Billie Eilish – ‘Therefore I Am’
The natural successor to René Descartes, Billie Eilish, returned with a blistering takedown of clout-chasers on ‘Therefore I Am’. Released in tandem with a self-directed music video that saw Eilish run riot in an abandoned food court with a wilful disregard for Eat Out to Help Out, the track once again boasts slick and snappy production from FINNEAS and delightfully sardonic vocals from Eilish, her withering smile firmly in tact. “I’m not your friend, or anything, damn.” Oof. EH
39Jessica Winter – ‘Sad Music’
Coming straight in like a ‘Tainted Love’ B-side, Jessica Winter’s offering to the alter of sad bangers was a knowing interpretation of that song you desperately need to “crance” (that’s cry and dance) to. “I’ve got a CD playing something blue”, she sings. Next time you’re in the depths, let it be this song you turn to. Winter’s witticisms might just perk you up. CG.
38Aitch ft. AJ Tracey, Tay Keith – ‘Rain’
“Big fat stack in my bag, when I unzip that, finna’ make it rain”. Wouldn’t it be nice to be Aitch and AJ Tracey. The lads teamed up for this bop about being a big shot back in March, when there was still stuff to spend our money on. Produced by Tay Keith, the duo’s impeccable flow over a simple piano track made it one of the year’s best UK rap tracks. CG.
37Lil Halima – ‘Friends’
Norway’s Lil Halima is a name you’re sure to be hearing more of in 2021 and at its core, ‘Friends’ is just a really great pop song. Recalling her similarly-aged peers such as Willow Smith and Rayvn Lenae, this was slick R&B-pop with a healthy slug of disco stirred in for good measure. JW.
36Beyoncé – ‘Black Parade’
Dropping on Juneteenth, just weeks after the murder of George Floyd, Beyoncé’s ‘Black Parade’ marked a powerful moment in the year. As global BLM protests gathered unprecedented momentum, the song was a proud celebration of Blackness at a time when many were feeling the weight of the year’s events. CG.
35Bright Eyes – ‘Dance And Sing’
“Got to keep on going like it ain’t the end/ Got to change like your life is depending on it.” ‘Dance and Sing’, is Conor Oberst at his best – his trembling vocal delivering the simplest of messages: whatever life throws at you, dance on through. There’s been far too much pinning of prophecy on tracks written pre-pandemic this year, and we hate to say it, but if ever the apocalypse were to have a soundtrack, this could really be it. CG
34CMAT – ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy, Baby!’
Inspired by a Vine – TikTok’s extinct older sibling – CMAT’s ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy, Baby!’ is a gun-toting, self-aware ode to Americana that balances pervasive melancholy with just the right amount of silliness. If there’s a funnier lyric this year than “always the cowboy, never the cow” we’ve yet to find it, but when immediately offset by “I hate the way my life turned out”, it speaks to the sense that we’re all just memeing and square-dancing our way around the gloom. EH
33Bree Runway – ‘Damn Daniel’
Every year needs a good fuckboy anthem and 2020’s was undoubtedly ‘Damn, Daniel’. Superstar in the making Bree Runway‘s collab. with Yung Baby Tate saw the pair embody the characters of Keisha and Felicia: two women enamoured with a dastardly Dan, who never “posts them on the ‘gram“. The Simmons drums and mid-song breakdown gave it an early nineties energy, tipping Bree as an emerging pop artist to keep serious tabs on. Ms Runway herself referred to it as “unapologetic black girl magic”. We’d have to agree. CG.
32BTS – ‘Dynamite’
Taken from ninth album ‘BE’ – and BTS‘ first song to be recorded entirely in English – ‘Dynamite’ found Seoul’s sweethearts getting in on the disco revival, complete with visuals featuring pastel-hued bell bottoms and John Travolta-style disco fingers. GS.
31Noname – ‘Song 33’
“When George was beggin’ for his mother…You thought to write about me?” Noname raps over a slick Madlib beat in a one-two sonic gut punch. Often oversimplified as a J. Cole diss track, ‘Song 33’ takes just 90 seconds to provide a nuanced insight into the unique challenges black women face. Noname has since distanced herself from the track, saying her “ego got the better of [her]”, but the despondent refrain of “one girl missing, another one go missing” manages to rise above and resonate, no matter what. EH
30The Killers – ‘Caution’
If there was any doubt left in anyone on earth that The Killers can write a stadium anthem, ‘Caution’ from this year’s album ‘Imploding The Mirage’, well and truly put that to bed. All atmospheric synths and Springsteen guitar, Brandon’s knack for spinning a yarn plonks us right in the middle of the dusty Nevada desert. “Let me introduce you to the featherweight queen/ she’s got Hollywood eyes, but you can’t shoot what she’s seen”. Tell us more, Mr Flowers. CG.
29Holly Humberstone – ‘Overkill’
Newcomer Holly Humberstone has released some seriously catchy pop tracks this year but it’s the near-perfect ‘Overkill’, that hasn’t left our Spotify. A song about revealing your feelings to a crush, its building tension and hooky chorus made critics and fans take Humberstone seriously as a star of the future. CG
28Goat Girl – ‘Sad Cowboy’
Goat Girl are no strangers to presenting a picture of Britain’s disenchanted youth. They returned in October with a reminder that it still ain’t all gravy with ‘Sad Cowboy’ the first single from upcoming album ‘On All Fours.’ As rolling synths give way to rumbling guitars, singer Clottie Cream’s cool, incantatory, vocals centre around the idea of losing grip of reality. AM.
27Cakes Da Killa – ‘Don Dada’
Mid-lockdown, Cakes da Killa released Don Dada, a track that was simply begging to be played out to a sweaty crowd. In the classic ballroom house style, Don Dada was relentlessly full of energy and life, a revitalising kick in the arse for anyone who’d fallen into a lockdown slump. Queer communities, and particularly queer communities of colour, suffered from the lack of life-giving connection over the lockdown; Don Dada was a much-needed reminder to those cut off and living away from their chosen families that they were very much still *that bitch*. JS.
26Little Simz – ‘might bang, might not’
Don’t let the title fool you: ‘might bang, might not’ is as self-assured as they come. Little Simz is fired up and gassed up, well-earned bravado oozing from every bar. She’s a one-woman army, Lauryn Hill back in the 90s, who delivers witty slights with relentless pace – “true, my drip enormous/ your tap running out, talk about awkward” – and once the sirens and bass drop out, you’re left trying to catch your breath. EH.
25Fiona Apple – ‘Ladies’
It’s hard to pick a stand-out moment from Fiona Apple’s astonishing album, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ but ‘Ladies’ – with its address to the women who came before and after her in a relationship – holds a pertinent message: stop pitting us against each other. Much of the album, examines Fiona’s relationships with other women, many stemming from patriarchal assertions. On ‘Ladies’, she uses passed-down objects – a dress left in the wardrobe, toiletries in the bathroom – to quash assumptions that a woman must be jealous of an ex’s new love. “Ladies, Ladies, Ladies, Ladies” repeats Apple, with comedic intonation, “No love is like any other love / So, it would be insane to make a comparison with you”. A valuable lesson to anyone Insta stalking their ex: it was unique. And so are you. CG.
24Pa Salieu – ‘Betty’
Heading into 2021, British-Gambian new talent Pa Salieu undoubtedly seems like the boy most likely to break through. Already being tipped across the board, there seems little doubt as to the Coventry musician’s imminent ascendence, and it’s singles like ‘Betty’ that have set the tone. Drawing heavily on Jamaican dancehall as well as more homegrown rap, the track brims with danger but simultaneously with a kind of joy – an acknowledgement that life is very rarely just one thing, and that Salieu is bringing an important new voice to the table to express it. AC.
23Four Tet – ‘Baby’
Second single from Four Tet’s 2020 album ‘Sixteen Oceans’, ‘Baby”s glitchy vocals (provided by Ellie Goulding) and skittering beats blurred the lines between ambient and club ready. Released just as the world was heading into lockdown, what should have been a record played loud in clubs throughout the summer became the soundtrack to something very different. For many, ‘Baby’ was the sound of the past we loved and provided hope for a future when we can enjoy it again. CG
22The 1975 – ‘If You’re Too Shy’
It’s been a weird old year for The 1975. Sure, ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ landed the band their fourth Number One, but, between mixed reviews and social media fuck-ups, Matty Healy’s previous golden boy status has taken a knocking. Still, ‘…Too Shy’ with its insatiable sparkling hooks and cheeky nods to after-hours webcam action, showed the band at their finest: irrepressibly catchy, playful and brilliant. AC.
21Frank Ocean – ‘Dear April’
“You made me new, you took me through, you woke me up” – on ‘Dear April’, Frank Ocean’s ability to uniquely devastate with simple turns of phrase and vocals that just ache with sorrow is as remarkable as ever. The track wraps you up in the sheets of a fresh breakup, with only sparse guitars and synth for company, as Frank contemplates the quiet anguish of going from strangers to lovers to strangers once more. EH.
20Rina Sawayama – ‘XS’
Imagine a noughties chart hit from a Kardashian with a smidgeon of self-awareness and you have ‘XS’ – Rina Sawayama’s unbelievably catchy slice of anti-capitalist satire. Rina delivers every reference to Cartier and Calabasas with a knowing wink: critiques of the gender pay gap and exploiting the Earth’s resources are deftly hidden behind the swagger of a Pussycat Dolls-esque hook and boisterous guitars. It’s a killer track that acknowledges the struggle in fighting those consumerist urges we’ve all been raised to have. EH.
19Jayda G – ‘Both Of Us’
Ever since Jayda G’s debut LP ‘Significant Changes’ exploded into the world last year, fans had been highly anticipating new material. ‘Both Of Us’ was a perfectly crafted nod to classic house, built around a twirling piano line and Jayda’s own hushed vocals. By slowing it right down to a half-tempo and jacking it back up again towards the end, Jayda showed that she’s a master of the dancefloor even when there’s no dancefloor in sight. JS.
18Hayley Williams – ‘Simmer’
‘Simmer’ opens with a thesis: “rage is a quiet thing” – but that doesn’t come easily. Hayley Williams shows desperate restraint in keeping her fury and signature belting vocals in check but you can hear the strain over the track’s gorgeous, ghostly hum. The sporadic sparks of menace – “a fucker like that man” – feel inevitable but they never set off an explosion, altogether making ‘Simmer’ a more darkly compelling and powerful listen. EH.
17Haim – ‘Don’t Wanna’
On a record that plays with everything from glam rock and reggae to 90s R&B, ‘Don’t Wanna’ is a quintessential Haim track and one of their best ever to boot. Este’s brash bassline, Danielle’s unguarded vocals and her muddy, modulated guitar riffs swim in and out of focus until we reach the climax: a joyous clash of instrumentation, harmonies and unabashed feeling that sees Haim’s breezy walk turn into a run. EH.
16Run The Jewels – ‘Ooh La La’
El-P and Killer Mike’s staccato flow is in full effect on ‘Ooh La La’ – a standout track on Run The Jewels‘ excellent fourth record. The inclusion of a Greg Nice sample and Preemo’s signature scratches give the track an instant 90s throwback feel, with El-P’s added flourishes stopping that looped sample from ever getting stale. There’s references to Batman and Wu-Tang, but it’s grounded in the moment too. “People, we the pirates, the pride of this great republic / No matter what you order, muhfucker, we what you’re stuck with” spits Killer Mike over wavy, discordant keys – an indictment of a political system that evolves and evolves without ever providing real change. EH
15Dua Lipa – ‘Levitating’
Pop songs are still made on the dancefloor – whether it be a sweaty club or a mate’s beer-soaked carpet. So it’s a testament to the sheer fun of ‘Levitating’ that it succeeds in spite of the obvious. The track is a sugar rush of Nile Rodgers-esque guitar riffs, group vocals to vicariously live through, and contagious handclaps. Dua Lipa opts for nimble and sultry vocals until the bridge, which she raps with campy aplomb: “I’m feeling so electric, dance my arse off”. There are no memories of glorious nights out attached to ‘Levitating’ but in true ‘Future Nostalgia’ fashion, it holds the promise of those memories one day. EH
14Fontaines DC – ‘Televised Mind’
Though much of Fontaines DC’s second LP ‘A Hero’s Death’ found the Dubliners treading more introverted, downbeat paths, ‘Televised Mind’ – all taut, twanging guitars and moody intensity – showed the quintet weren’t ready to become total shoe-gazers just yet. Though they’ve had scant few opportunities to play it live, you can practically see singer Grian Chatten pacing the stage in customary caged tiger fashion during its aggy “what ya call it” refrain; lyrically sneering at the masses, there’s something undeniably attractive about its sense of not-even-slightly-concealed, lip-curling disdain. AC.
13Grimes – ‘Delete Forever’
Grimes‘ 2020 album ‘Miss Anthropocene’ showed new facets to the artist. There was drum n’ bass raver 4AEM and ‘Delete Forever’: a beautifully sad indie song about the tragic permanence of opioid addiction. Acoustic guitar made space for a more pared back vocal from Claire Boucher, on a topic that she’s experienced the pain of all too closely. CG.
12Moses Sumney – ‘Cut Me’
If only all our moments of self-flagellation sounded as heavenly as Moses Sumney does on this standout from second album ‘græ’. A meditation on struggle and endurance, ‘Cut Me’ voices the loathsome little devil on so many of our shoulders (“When my mind’s clouded and filled with doubt/ That’s when I feel the most alive”). Yet, instead of screaming into a pillow while Instagram stories of old school friends’ babies tick by in the background (our personal soundtrack of choice), Moses turns the idea into a fluttering burst of multi-part harmonies and magic. AC.
11Phoebe Bridgers – ‘I Know The End’
Cathartic and gloriously entwined with Phoebe’s own beautiful narrative, ‘I Know The End’ closed June’s ‘Punisher’ with the mightiest of farewells. With a melody made for starlit night drives and a tear-jerking cacophony aided by Bright Eyes’ Nate Walcott on horns and her boygenius bandmates Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, the track is heartbreaking yet otherworldly, with an outro that leaves you somewhat breathless. BF.
10Taylor Swift – ‘Exile (ft. Bon Iver)
Taylor Swift duetting with Justin Vernon probably wasn’t on anyone’s 2020 bingo card but upon hearing ‘exile’, it’s hard to imagine a better match vocally for folklore-era Taylor. The atmospheric, emotionally rich piano ballad sees the pair roleplay as ex-lovers, trading blows in isolation until Aaron Dessner’s arrangement forces them to collide for a cinematic ending. “You didn’t even see the signs” isn’t exactly a ceasefire but it does feel like the start of one. EH.
9Romy – ‘Lifetime’
The bar was set high for XX solo outings with Jamie XX’s ‘In Colour’ being lauded as one of the greatest albums of the last decade. Romy Madley-Croft’s first single without her bandmates was as joyous as we’d hoped: a ravey, dance-pop anthem about living life to the full. Arms in the air. CG.
8Haim – ‘I Know Alone’
Loneliness doesn’t always sound how you’d imagine. For Haim – whose entire vibe is built around camaraderie – it’s 808s and heartbreak and “screaming every word of ‘Both Sides, Now‘”. That’s the story of ‘I Know Alone’: a melancholic bop that sees the trio unexpectedly flirt with UK garage with brilliant success. “Some things never change” but they still manage to take small comfort in the routine of loneliness, something none of us can shake this year. EH.
7Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande – ‘Rain On Me’
Is there a better synopsis of 2020 than “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive”? ‘Rain on Me’ heralded Gaga’s return to fully-fledged pop, as she teamed up with Ariana for a dose of catharsis set to a 90s house beat. Cruel twists of fate have kept this tune from its true home on the dance floor but for now, we can live vicariously through the storm. EH.
6The Weeknd – ‘Blinding Lights’
On ‘Blinding Lights’, The Weeknd fired up the synthwave for an after-hours race through Sin City, cold and empty, and it was instantly cinematic. “I’m drowning in the night,” he crooned over an exhilarating synth riff and drumbeat (bearing more than a passing resemblance to ‘Take On Me’); his signature eerie shadow enveloping the track. No doubt destined for a spot on a Safdie brothers soundtrack one day. EH.
5Megan Thee Stallion (feat. Beyoncé) – ‘Savage Remix’
A song that caused a viral TikTok sensation and had Beyoncé on the line desperate to make a remix, ‘Savage’ is a masterpiece in its cockiness, attitude and infinite girl power. Megan’s slick lyrics and no-nonsense flair keeps you hooked, and there is no need for explanation as to why she is rap’s most exhilarating newcomer. BF.
4Arlo Parks – ‘Eugene’
Falling in love is sweet agony and Arlo Parks knows it. ‘Eugene’ lives in that delicate space between friends and more, with hushed vocals delivering achingly tender poetry like secrets at a sleepover. Jittery hi-hats and soft, yearning guitar riffs mask a bitter aftertaste – “I hate that son of a bitch” – and it all blends into an unassuming anthem for queer, unrequited love. EH.
3Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Kyoto’
‘Kyoto’ was originally written as a Phoebe Bridgers ballad, but ‘Punisher’ producers, Ethan Gruska and Tony Berg convinced her to up the tempo. The result? A spectacular indie rock song about a day off on tour in the Japanese city, which examines Phoebe’s fractious relationship with her father. “You said you wrote me a letter, but I don’t have to read it”, sings Bridgers, her dreamlike vocal and astute lyricism capturing the selfishness of a lacking parent trying, too late, to make amends. By far the most accessible song on ‘Punisher’, this was the track that really elevated Bridgers from indie darling to queen of 2020. CG.
2Christine and the Queens – ‘People I’ve Been Sad’
Last seen thrashing around in the rain with Charli XCX on their 2019 collaborative banger ‘Gone’, Heloise Letissier entered the year in far more contemplative fashion. But though ‘People, I’ve Been Sad’ – the lead single from following EP ‘La Vita Nuova’ – came good on the atmospheric, melancholy promise of its title, it also honed in on Chris’ knack for hopeful, steel-yourself-cos-it’s-gonna-be-OK-in-the-end gritty determination. Yes, people, Christine & the Queens may have been sad for a bit, but with the help of some spacious, glacial ‘80s-isms and stirring strings, you know she’ll be alright in the end. AC.
1Cardi B ft. Megan Thee Stallion – ‘WAP’
The most talked about song of the year. The track that launched a thousand memes. If you weren’t humming Cardi and Megan’s mega-hit every time you got a bucket and a mop to wipe up that spilt cup of tea (because sadly, not all of us can live quite as glamorously as they), were you even in 2020? Full of the kind of naughty lyrical nuggets that would make your nanna reach for the rosary beads, and underpinned by an insatiably catchy sample nicked from 1992 club track ‘There’s Some Whores In This House’, ‘WAP’ was a much-needed moment of fabulously filthy levity at a time when the world needed it most. All hail the queens. AC.
Listen to all the tracks via the Spotify playlist below!
Like what we do? Support The Forty-Five’s original editorial with a monthly Patreon subscription. It gets you early access to our Cover Story and lots of other goodies – and crucially, helps fund our writers and photographers.Become a Patron!