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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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Taylor Swift, “Marjorie”

I had this spot saved for “Mirrorball,” especially the version from The Long Pond Studio Sessions, with Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff stretching out on guitar — Taylor really nails the lonely rainbow-in-the-dark vibe of this painfully gorgeous tune. Yet there’s no denying “Marjorie,” even if it just arrived. “Marjorie” doesn’t sound at all like a country song, but it sure feels like one, because it’s a kind of ghost story, and nobody gets along with ghosts like a country singer. Taylor pays tribute to her late grandmother, over the Steve Reich–style electronic pulse, whispering, “What died didn’t stay dead.” She makes that memory feel like both a blessing and a challenge. What a song.

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

“Savage” was already a classic from the day Megan dropped it on her Suga mixtape, back when her Hot Girl Summer swerved into her Mad As Hell Winter. But another Houston girl named Beyoncé took it to the next level, the most elevating ladies-night remix since Missy flexed all over Lil Kim’s “Not Tonight” back in the day. A jolt of feminist adrenaline: Megan and Bey form a superhero duo testifying to the Southern rap legacy and the power of the hip-hop sisterhood.

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William Claxton*


Bob Dylan, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”

Dylan has been staring down the winter for years now — he was just a lad of 56 when he sang “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” on his 1997 classic Time Out of Mind. But the dark was just beginning. In “Key West,” he’s an outlaw drifting in the Florida sunshine, hounded by his memories. Over the ghostly accordion, he growls, “I’m searching for love, for inspiration, on that pirate radio station.” Dylan sings “Key West” in his crooner voice — when he murmurs, “People tell me I oughta try a little tenderness,” he reminds you how “Try a Little Tenderness” started as a Bing Crosby song, before Otis Redding turned it inside out. But even in the palm trees and hibiscus flowers, Dylan’s got a heart full of Desolation Row. And even in this sunny paradise, you can hear him glancing around, looking for the right moment to slip out the back and make his drifter’s escape. I’ve spent entire days lost inside this song, but I haven’t come close to figuring it out. Dylan’s 2,000 miles from Juarez, and 55 years past Highway 61 Revisited, but his restless spirit keeps him traveling on.

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Big Hit Entertainment*


BTS, “Moon”

BTS had such a massive 2020, but “Moon” is my favorite thing they did all year. It’s that classic boy-band pop gesture — a love song to the audience. Jin floats on the spacey guitars, switching from Korean to English for lines like “All I see is you” or “All for you,” but always speaking the language of love. The fans are his Earth, while he’s the Moon in orbit around them, reflecting their light back to them. An uplifting love song, at a moment when we needed all the uplift we could get. Under the moonlight, the serious moonlight.

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Daniel Dorsa*


Adult Mom, “Berlin”

A perfect song for when you’re missing your friends, even the ones you don’t like very much. Adult Mom’s Stevie Knipe sings this guitar ballad mourning a broken connection between two mates who thought they’d stick together for life. The friends bond over music: “In the dorm room we sang ‘Violet’ by Hole/Screaming off our youth.” But now all Knipe has left is memories of sharing a beer in the hallway, sitting in a parked car in the dark, hearing the rain hit the roof. Go on, take everything.

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Flo Milli, “Like That Bitch”

My new life coach Flo Milli keeps it raw in this anthem from her debut mixtape, Ho, Why Is You Here? The Alabama MC chants “I walk around like that bitch,” spends your cash, steals your man, crashes your party, flexes to the souped-up G-funk. Words to live by: “Acting light with that beef? I didn’t know that you exist!”

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Kaash Paige, “Frank Ocean”

A lush ballad from 18-year-old Dallas R&B prodigy Kaash Paige, fresh off her excellent mixtape from last winter, Parked Car Convos. “Frank Ocean” is her late-night quiet-storm crush confession — you got her thinking about you, just because you remind her of her favorite song on Channel Orange.

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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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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.