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Year in Review: Rob Sheffield’s Top 25 Songs of 2020

“WAP,” “Watermelon Sugar,” and more

Rob Sheffield's favorite songs of the year included tracks by Harry Styles, Jhené Aiko, and Megan Thee Stallion.

What a glorious year for music — if nothing else. And there were days when it really did feel like there was nothing else. But music kept us going, when we needed it most. These are my 25 favorite songs of the year (although some are over on my album list, to avoid duplicating all the same artists). Including, but not limited to: hits, flops, obscurities, rap bangers, guitar punks, disco dreams, TikTok dance crazes, indie slop, soul poets, certified freaks seven days a week. And Fleetwood Mac, obviously.

From Rolling Stone US

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Selena Gomez, “Cut You Off”

Selena spikes her metaphorical gin and juice with more salt than ever. In “Cut You Off,” she unloads a bad romance she’s been dragging around for “1,460 days.” (Almost as long as we’ve been waiting for the next Lorde album. But who’s counting?)  In “Cut You Off,” Selena fumes her way through a breakup haircut, over that Seventies-rock drum thump. Excellent guitar solo, too — in a year full of Fleetwood Mac tributes, Selena was the one who tapped into the band’s underrated early-1970s Bob Welch era circa Mystery to Me, which is some next-level Mac-ology. And if that isn’t enough to make her the consummate all-around entertainer: There was also her Netflix quarantine cooking show, Selena and Chef, where she learns her way around a kitchen she admits she’s never used before.

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Brian Ziff*


Soccer Mommy, “Royal Screw-Up”

Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison talks about the passion, with her Nineties voice and guitar in the Evan Dando / Juliana Hatfield mode. How deep is her Nineties love? She has a melancholic coming-of-age ballad called “Night Swimming.” (Not the only R.E.M. shout-out on her Color Theory.) She vents her insecurities in “Royal Screw-Up,” admitting, “I am ‘fake it till you make it’ in a can.”

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David Brandon Geeting*


Oneohtrix Point Never, “I Don’t Love Me Anymore”

Daniel Lopatin took his electro alias Oneohtrix Point Never from the Boston soft-rock station Magic 106.7, home of the legendary late-night makeout marathon “Bedtime Magic.” (One of my fave childhood radio rituals.) So it’s fitting his Warp quarantine soundtrack is full of all-too-human emotion, mixing in vocals from Arca, the Weeknd, and Caroline Polachek. “I Don’t Love Me Anymore” is downright poignant — a radio signal full of static is losing the song you needed to hear tonight, so the static tries to hum it for you.

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Vijat Mohindra*


Miley Cyrus feat. Billy Idol, “Night Crawling”

You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become Billy Idol. Miley has reached the second stage.

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Bao Ngo*


Palehound, “See a Light”

Palehound’s Ellen Kempner knows how to shatter you softly. She made one of last year’s most soulful rock albums, Black Friday, and “See a Light” is on the same level — a ballad full of Elliott Smith–style whispers and White Album guitar chords, about two lonely misfits finding each other and trying to make it last. She sings the key line over and over: “You keep me feeling lucky and I’m hoping luck can age.” Anyone hearing this song would have to bet on them.

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Hanly Banks Callahan*


Bill Callahan, “Pigeons”

Opening line: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Final line: “Sincerely, L. Cohen.” The recovering Smog guy continues his strange creative rebirth as a family-man bard, with the tale of a wedding-limo driver who whisks a just-married couple off for their mystery ride. “Pigeons” is just one of his gems on The Gold Record. Callahan also proved himself a hell of a wedding singer this year, teaming up with Will Oldham for reverent covers of Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” and Billie Eilish’s “Wish You Were Gay.”

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Nick Cave, “Cosmic Dancer”

Nick Cave sits at the piano and gives it up to the late great Marc Bolan. His “Cosmic Dancer” comes from the tribute album Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex, produced by Hal Willner, who tragically died of Covid before it came out. Cave spent the year facing mortality, in his cathartic live-solo Idiot Prayer. But he sings “Cosmic Dancer” as a goth-blues meditation on grief, treating it like the prayer it always was.

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Jhené Aiko, “Pu$$y Fairy (OTW)”

A poetic sex-mystic ballad, from Aiko’s breakthrough Chilombo. Her voice fades between blunted hip-hop and old-school soul, as she murmurs, “Close your eyes and let your feels go.” When they reopen the karaoke bars, it’s all over for anyone unlucky enough to be in the room when I sing this for the first time (and probably the last time).

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Blackpink feat. Selena Gomez, “Ice Cream”

Jisoo, Rosé, Lisa, and Jennie tweak a classic girl-group tradition: the playground jump-rope chant. It goes back to “Iko Iko” and “I Want Candy” and “Hollaback Girl,” or even further back to “Miss Mary Mack” or “Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat.” The lovesick girls of Blackpink — the world’s biggest female group — give it a dessert-friendly soft-serve K-pop twist, with help from Selena and co-writer Ariana Grande. Brilliant production detail: the way the synth hook whirs like a jump rope, for that “Double Dutch” ambience.

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Ashley Worley*


Silver Scrolls, “Walk One: Concrete Visions”

The album is called Music for Walks, and it’s truth in advertising: Two guitar dudes in the woods of North Carolina, vets of the great Nineties indie band Polvo, explore inner space with tastes of psych and prog, nothing deep, just headphone guitar crackle to induce serenity while you wander through your day and take a breath or two. Absolutely nothing happens here, which is high praise. Dig the liner notes: “Solvitur ambulando: ‘It is solved by walking.’ Sure, we are not beautiful like butterflies. But those idiots can’t walk.”

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Beabadoobee, “Care”

The London-via-Manila guitar star checked heads last year with bedroom-pop nuggets like “She Plays Bass” and “I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus.” (One of those heads being Malkmus himself.) Barely out of her teens, Beabadoobee is the kind of Pavement scholar who masters the “Gold Soundz” lifestyle before she’s old enough to rent a car. (The first song she learned to play was “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer, which makes all the sense in the world.) Beabadoobee said her goal in this song was “end-of-a–Nineties movie vibes,” and “Care” could definitely play in the background while Reese Witherspoon drives off at the end of Cruel Intentions.

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RCA Records


Doja Cat feat. Nicki Minaj, “Say So”

Doja Cat blows TikTok super-crush kisses over the Eighties-style Kajagoogoo groove (dig that Spandau Ballet / Naked Eyes Brit-fop guitar loop), while Nicki adds, “I put this cookie on quarantine.” Push it real good.

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Danny Clinch


Bruce Springsteen, “Ghosts”

When Springsteen wrapped up his one-man Broadway show, he joked he was going “back to my day job.” Except like so many dudes in Springsteen songs, he found that was easier said than done — when it comes to rocking stadiums live in 2020, lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy. (“Come back home to the touring industry/Hiring man says, ‘Son, if it was up to me.’”) “Ghosts” might be officially about his fallen comrades, but it feels more like a long-distance dedication to the (temporarily) scattered audience, as if all those crowds who used to hang on his every word just up and vanished one day like a bunch of Bobby Jeans. I listen to that self-consciously over-the-top E Street piano break and think, “Damn, he really misses us.” Can you imagine the day when we get to sing, “I’m alive and I’m out here on my own” back to him at a show? I can, I do, I will. Hi-ho, rock & roll, deliver us from nowhere.

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Ribbon Stage, “Favorite Girl”

A Gang of Three from Brooklyn, with Anni Hilator, Jolie M-A, and David Sweetie blasting through a fuzz-guitar anxiety attack called “Favorite Girl.” It’s the highlight from their debut cassette My Favorite Shrine (five songs in eight minutes — cool), which logged serious hours in my Walkman this summer. (It was mixed by someone named “Capt Tripps Balsington.”) The one called “Favorite Girl” sounds even sadder than the one called “Cry in the Driveway,” and that’s the way pop should always work.

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Rick Diamond/Getty Images


Fleetwood Mac, “Dreams”

Who else but Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham could keep re-breaking the same chain for over 40 years, from Tusk to TikTok? “Dreams” became the year’s most surprising TikTok sensation, inspiring Stevie, Lindsey, and Mick Fleetwood to join the fun — probably the closest we’ll ever get to a reunion. Yet another weird twist in the endlessly weird Mac saga. There’s something so beautiful — and so scary — in the way these bad lovers are still haunted by the music they made together, and how the music still refuses to give them their freedom. It’s official: Stevie is the thunder that only happens when it’s raining. And Stevie is always raining.