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The 50 best songs of 2020

Megan Thee Stallion, The Weeknd and Dua Lipa.
Megan Thee Stallion, The Weeknd and Dua Lipa offered a welcome respite from our year of doomscrolling.
(Illustration by Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Charles Sykes, left; Joel C Ryan / AP; Will Heath / Getty Images )
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Looking back years from now, we may or may not remember how we encountered the songs that defined 2020 — on the radio, on a streaming service, on TikTok as the soundtrack of somebody’s viral dance video. But we’re certain to remember the songs themselves, which helped us make sense of (and occasionally escape from) the strange reality of a year like none other. Here, in alphabetical order, are the Times music staff’s picks for the 50 best songs of 2020.

Fiona Apple, “Shameika”

Fiona Apple, Shameikia

The swirling uptempo piano melody nearly pulls you under before Apple even utters a word. When she does, she spins forth a lyrical recollection about stress, school bullies and one kind classmate. “Shameika said I had potential,” she sings. Shameika wasn’t wrong. (Randall Roberts)

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Bad Bunny, “Safaera” (feat. Ñengo Flow and Jowell y Randy)

This highlight off Bad Bunny’s sophomore album, “YHLQMDLG,” is a dancefloor cut for the kind of parties that used to be illegal in Puerto Rico. Fitted with a freaky Missy Elliott sample, it’s the reggaeton song he’s wanted to write since he was 12, full of racy lines to shock your grandma with, as fans did in the viral TikTok “Abuela Challenge.” (Suzy Exposito)

Kelsea Ballerini, “Hole in the Bottle”

A drinking song funny enough that Ballerini released it three different times: as a pop-country rave-up, as an acoustic hoedown and finally as a duet with Shania Twain, from whose 2002 “Up!” Ballerini may have gotten the idea of rejiggering her stuff in the first place. (Mikael Wood)

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Five women take the top 3 spots, with Taylor Swift’s quarantine album leading our year’s best.

Beabadoobee, “Care”

The year’s catchiest, jangliest, kiss-off-iest ’90s-rock single, written and performed by an artist born — let’s see here — in 2000. (MW)

Benny the Butcher, “Legend”

You could fight for hours about which corner of the Buffalo, N.Y.-based Griselda Records rapper stable to put on this list: Westside Gunn? Conway the Machine? But there’s something salutary and exceptionally triumphant about the closer from Benny the Butcher’s “Burden of Proof” (produced in full by Hit-Boy) that captured the label’s 2020 ascent. (August Brown)

Justin Bieber with Benny Blanco, “Lonely”

As free of ornamentation as it is of self-pity, Bieber’s intimate vocal-and-keyboard ballad questions the ethics of child stardom even as it showcases the decade-plus he’s spent honing his remarkable voice. (MW)

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Blackpink, “How You Like That”

Ever since their groundbreaking 2019 Coachella set, K-pop’s biggest girl group had seemingly been stuck in limbo. But they whipped right back into place with “How You Like That,” a squelchy, gum-smacking and titanically fun comeback that should cement them as pop stars, full-stop, in the U.S. for years to come. (AB)

Phoebe Bridgers, “Garden Song”

Twitter’s preeminent depression edgelord is also one of her generation’s most affecting singers and songwriters. Her sophomore LP, “Punisher,” should be among any pandemic-albums canon, with the yearning “Garden Song” as the gilt star atop this year’s peak-miserabilist Christmas tree. (AB)

BTS, “Dynamite”

There was hardly a chance this single from the Korean pop megalith BTS wasn’t going to be the No. 1 song in the world upon its release. They followed it up with an album “Be” that, like Taylor Swift’s “Folklore,” was a peak of pandemic aesthetic and an introspective high point. But “Dynamite” was a milestone that beat Anglocentric pop at its own exultant disco game. (AB)

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Cardi B, “WAP” (feat. Megan Thee Stallion)

A master class in metaphor — “Swipe your nose like a credit card”! — not to mention in comedic timing and in the art of provocation. (MW)

Movie theaters closed. Broadway went dark. Concert venues fell silent.

Eddie Chacon, “Trouble”

Eddie Chacon, Trouble

Best known as half of the ’90s soul group Charles and Eddie, Chacon returned to the studio last year with Solange collaborator John Carroll Kirby. On “Trouble,” an understated bedroom R&B jam, Chacon sings with a certain resolve, at times seeming to sigh his falsetto in despair. (RR)

City Girls, “Pussy Talk” (feat. Doja Cat)

Eat your heart out, Eve Ensler. City Girls and Doja Cat extol the power of the slang word in the song’s title, and the sacrifices it demands of its most devout followers. Male rappers Lil Wayne, Quavo and Jack Harlow would later sing its praises in a remix. (SE)

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Clipping, “Chapter 319”

Clipping, “Chapter 319"

Released on Juneteenth and recorded in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed, rap trio Clipping’s rhythmic invective is propelled by rapper (and Tony-winning “Hamilton” actor) Daveed Diggs’ furious delivery. “Chapter 319” samples Floyd, who before moving to Minneapolis released rap tracks in Houston as Big George. (RR)

Miley Cyrus, “Prisoner” (feat. Dua Lipa)

After teasing fans with her gritty takes on Nine Inch Nails, Blondie and Tom Petty songs, Miley Cyrus finally manifested the retrospective rock album of her dreams in “Plastic Hearts.” In the dusky glam track “Prisoner,” she brings her punk-rock snarl to Dua Lipa’s disco and surrenders to the beat. (SE)

Deftones, “Genesis”

The Californian metal titans made their heaviest, most timely LP since 2000’s “White Pony” with the pandemic nipping at their heels, finishing it in isolation during the pandemic. “Genesis” whips from fury to tripped-out loneliness and back again every few bars, just as we’ve all done since March. (AB)

Dogleg, “Kawasaki Backflip”

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Dogleg, “Kawasaki Backflip”

Detroit punks Dogleg whipped their Midwestern emo malaise into an aptly titled tantrum of a debut, “Melee.” In the frenetic “Kawasaki Backflip,” frontman Alex Stoitsiadis boasts the merits of blowing up a failing relationship and poses the existential question: “Will you be the fire or the wind?” (SE)

Bob Dylan, “I Contain Multitudes”

Bob Dylan, I Contain Multitudes

One of a number of melancholy stunners on “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” the song at first feels like a one-take, meandering toss-off. As this character study progresses, though, Dylan draws you in with a few cocky come-ons before suckerpunching the mood with a string of invectives: “You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart / But not all of it, only the hateful part.” (RR)

Eslabon Armado, “Dame Tu Calor”

Eslabon Armado, “Dame Tu Calor”

Regional Mexican trio Eslabon Armado may have gone under the radar this Latin Grammys season, but the California teens serve a master class in the corrido romántico with their fluttering acoustic ballad, “Dame Tu Calor,” or “Give Me Your Heat.” (SE)

Flo Milli, “May I”

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Mobile, Ala.’s finest new MC put out one of the most enjoyable debuts of the year with “Ho, Why Is You Here?” Crafty and charismatic at every turn, the 20-year-old’s “May I” is especially tart and hilarious: “I’m with your daddy gettin’ nasty like the 2 Live Crew / Word to Stevie, they can’t see me like ‘Do I Do.’” (AB)

Haim, “The Steps”

In a song about two lovers failing to understand each other, Danielle Haim peels off a fuzz-guitar lick so perfectly shaped you can almost see it. (MW)

Sam Hunt, “Hard to Forget”

The country disrupter matches a cleverly deployed sample from an early-’50s honky-tonk tune with a bit of classic Nashville wordplay: “I got a bottle of whiskey but I got no proof / That you showed up tonight in that dress just to mess with my head.” (MW)

Jay Electronica, “The Blinding” (feat. Travis Scott)

Like Dr. Dre and Guns N’ Roses, rapper-producer Jay Electronica looked like he was never going to finish his follow-up to 2007’s “Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge).” Then suddenly he did, and it was actually worth the lag time. “The Blinding” sports exultant Swizz Beats and Hit-Boy production, packed with authoritative delivery from its standard-bearer. (AB)

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Jetty Bones, “Taking Up Space”

In a year overflowing with strong work by young women in indie rock, this up-and-coming act from small-town Ohio, led by Kelc Galluzzo, cut through with a searingly plaintive song about imposter syndrome. (MW)

Juice Wrld, “Wishing Well”

The number of posthumous rap albums this year is a bitter and harrowing reminder of all the lives and careers snuffed out needlessly by drugs and violence. “Wishing Well” is perhaps the late Juice Wrld’s valediction of emo-rap as an idea — melodically brilliant, wounded and sincere in a way that will resonate for generations of MCs to come. (AB)

Kali Uchis, "¡Aquí Yo Mando!” (feat. Rico Nasty)

Kali Uchis feat. Rico Nasty, "¡Aquí Yo Mando!”

Colombian-American soul singer Kali Uchis flaunted her bicultural prowess in her first-ever Latin album, “Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios)∞.” She tries on new sounds like trip-hop, reggaeton and even a classic Cuban bolero a la La Lupe — but Kali throws down hardest with Rico Nasty in their commanding Spanglish trap number, "¡Aquí Yo Mando!” (SE)

Kehlani, “Toxic”

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To judge by this moody lo-fi video, Kehlani is spending the lonely witching hours in lockdown drinking wine in her bedroom and beckoning a lover on a grainy webcam. We’ll be first in line to affirm that her album “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t” is absolutely smoldering. (AB)

Khruangbin, “Time (You and I)”

Khruangbin, “Time (You and I)”

Remember dance floors? The energy of hundreds of music lovers moving so hard that we gladly swapped sweat and spit and accepted as tradeoff the occasional chest cold? (Collapses to floor, weeping.) Texas band Khruangbin’s effervescent, hand-crafted disco song was designed for communal expression. But stripped of the club, “Time (You and I)” can still drive peacocks and wallflowers alike to do the Pandemic Slide. (RR)

King Von, “How It Go”

It’s awful to think that King Von’s October LP “Welcome to O’Block” was just days old when he was shot and killed outside an Atlanta club. It should be remembered as a skilled and vigorous studio debut — as this track exemplifies — that deftly built on Chicago drill music toward something new and commanding. (AB)

Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, “Rain on Me”

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An only-in-2020 disco-house banger about the ecstasy of not having died yet. (MW)

Lil Baby, “Emotionally Scarred”

“I’m tired of being tired of being tired,” Lil Baby moans over a mournful keyboard loop — painfully relatable sloganeering from a tight-focus rapper caught in a widescreen moment. (MW)

“The Bigger Picture” elevated Lil Baby from streaming champ to voice for a generation. But like everyone else, he just wants life to get back to normal.

Dua Lipa, “Levitating”

The British dance-pop diva promises to “take you for a ride,” then fulfills the offer with a rubbery club groove that just won’t quit. (MW)

Megan Thee Stallion, “Savage” (feat. Beyoncé)

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Swagger served two ways, both in proudly indelible Houston accents that speak of (and about) powerful mothers. (MW)

Kelly Lee Owens, “Corner of My Sky” (feat. John Cale)

New Video: Kelly Lee Owens - Corner Of My Sky ft. John Cale (Official Video)

For the meditative “Corner of My Sky,” British electronic producer Owens collaborated with Welsh musician, producer and former Velvet Underground violist John Cale. Owens surrounds Cale’s aged voice with a wobbly bass tone that seems to circle him like a raptor. “As the weather leaps, the weather weeps, weeps into the winter,” he says, before tapping his tenor to sing, “The rain, the rain, the rain / Thank God, the rain.” (RR)

Machine Gun Kelly, “Forget Me Too” (feat. Halsey)

Rap-rocker Machine Gun Kelly banded together with Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker to make his pop-punk pivot in the 2020 LP “Tickets to My Downfall.” In “Forget Me Too,” pop banshee Halsey spirals into the track like a tornado, roaring with the fury of a thousand grounded teens on a Saturday night. (SE)

Perfume Genius, “On the Floor”

“How long till my body is safe?” Mike Hadreas asks over this song’s undulating funk guitars — a very 2020 way to wonder about the long-term effects of a broken heart. (MW)

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Pop Smoke, “For the Night” (feat. Lil Baby and DaBaby)

At 20, Pop Smoke was likely the future of New York rap, with a dexterous snarl distilling a tri-city drill sound (Chicago, London, NYC) into something all his own. His murder in an L.A. home invasion in February left so much work undone, and while “Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon” posthumously corralled too many disparate ideas into a final statement, “For the Night” is a convincingly dragged-out, haunting angle on his craft at the precipice of global stardom. (AB)

Rico Nasty, “Don’t Like Me” (feat. Gucci Mane and Don Toliver)

In perhaps the best year in recent memory for gleeful, ingenious filth from female rappers, Rico Nasty’s contribution to the cause was a standout. “Don’t Like Me” is invitingly psychedelic and loopy, but it’s mostly a towering feat of reclaimed BDE from one of the genre’s artisans of the form. (AB)

Run the Jewels, “Out of Sight” (feat. 2 Chainz)

“Ain’t a team as mean and clean as J. Meline and Michael Render,” raps Killer Mike, using his and his partner El-P’s government names, and that’s true enough in this block-rocking rap attack. Yet an appearance by the laid-back 2 Chainz draws out Run the Jewels’ comic streak for a welcome laugh amid the tough talk. (MW)

St. Panther, “These Days”

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Singer St. Panther’s new video for ‘These Days.’

The Irvine-born singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Daniela Bojorges-Giraldo has a soulful, raspy voice that recalls early Macy Gray, and she uses it in service of a song about barely getting by. (RR)

Rina Sawayama, “STFU!”

In a perfect world, Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit would have recorded a rage-y Y2K anthem to bring pop and nü-metal fans together. Twenty years after their heydays, Japanese-British singer Rina Sawayama delivers all that and more in “STFU!,” a bubblegum shredder she wrote to combat Asian stereotypes. “Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut?” she sings, “‘cause I have, many times.” (SE)

Shamir, “Other Side”

New Video: Shamir - Other Side [Official Audio]

Managing to connect British post-punk and Nashville country-pop with the greatest of ease, Shamir Bailey’s buoyant but bittersweet song about hope and family after loss harnesses both pedal steel and a banjo for texture. A belter who’s unafraid to stretch his voice to the highest registers, Shamir’s genre-defying sound and aesthetic versatility are on full display. (RR)

Shygirl, “Slime”

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If “WAP” was too cryptic a metaphor for you, here’s an even more lasciviously imagined track from this rising South London MC. The beat is growling, moody and almost a throwback to Bay Area hyphy. Shygirl’s breathy, exacting delivery hits like the click of a handcuff in a barely lit sex dungeon. (AB)

Jazmine Sullivan, “Lost One”

Her voice as exquisitely scratched as the electric guitar in this skeletal R&B ballad, Sullivan unsparingly dissects the failures that led a lover to leave her — and not because she thinks doing it will help her win him back. “If it’s too late,” she sings, oozing regret, “I understand.” (MW)

Taylor Swift, “August”

While the whole world was hunkered down this spring, somewhere in the woods, Taylor Swift was astral-projecting into the ‘90s … and she came back down to Earth with “August.” Swift’s guitar-driven ode to a secret teen romance flows like summer wine, and recited in her signature Swiftian prosody, the words “meet me behind the mall” never sounded so profound. (SE)

Touché Amoré, “Come Heroine”

The veteran L.A. punk act followed up its 1,000th career show (and a gut-punch album, “Stage Four,” about singer Jeremy Bolm’s mother dying of cancer) with a bracing and explosive LP that again broadened hardcore’s literary possibilities. It also just plain rips, as “Lament’s” album kickoff track shows immediately. (AB)

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Morgan Wallen, “7 Summers”

Country music’s next male superstar usually flaunts his rough edges. But in this dreamy soft-rock jam — one of several country tunes that expanded the genre’s footprint on TikTok and Spotify in 2020 — Wallen is as smooth as a bro can be. (MW)

The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights”

With billions of streams — yet, bafflingly, not a single Grammy nomination — the Weeknd’s throwback synth-pop smash was so ubiquitous this year that you couldn’t avoid hearing it even when you weren’t going anywhere. One aspect that kept it from wearing out its welcome: a crisp tempo just a few ticks faster than you’re always expecting. (MW)

Lucinda Williams, “Man Without a Soul”

New Video: Lucinda Williams “Man Without A Soul” - Late Show #PlayAtHome

Williams never identifies the narcissistic, graceless, shameless man at the center of her Grammy-nominated topical indictment, but the masterful songwriter doesn’t hide her contempt for whomever this Trumpian figure might be: “There’s a darkness all around you / To cover all you’re hiding,” she sings in her Louisiana twang. (RR)

Remi Wolf, “Photo ID”

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Remi Wolf - Photo ID

Driven by contemporary, bass-heavy tones while recalling the freestyle sound of Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Remi Wolf’s playful “Photo ID” has a hook to die for. Born of a (prepandemic) trip to the California DMV, the refrain’s first line is delivered with carefree glee: “Lit in line, smile for the photo ID.” Her true state hits during the bridge, though, when her façade crumbles in the face of jealousy: “If I see that girl around you,” she sings, “I’ll be stepping on her toes.” (RR)

Yves Tumor, “Gospel for a New Century”

Avant-gardist Yves Tumor alchemized a unique queer future funk on their 2020 LP “Heaven to a Tortured Mind.” The theatrical squall of horns in opener “Gospel for a New Century” comes like a revelation, lighting the path for a solid half-hour of sensuous glam-rock reverie. (SE)

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