Great songs have a freedom that albums don’t because great songs only have to pull off their trick once. It’s like how a great SNL sketch can be a terrible movie or why Vine was an underrated miracle of online comedy. Sometimes an artist can get a lot more done in miniature. When people say that no one listens to albums anymore, they’re obviously mistaken, but they mean that no one listens to certain kinds of albums anymore. They won’t wait to get to the good part, and an industry that’s been padding out their wares for decades has had to adapt to a new reality where the customer is always dope.
From Hailey Whitters to Hayley Williams, from King Von to Christine and the Queens, here’s a supercut of just the good parts: The songs that have challenged and delighted and comforted us through a fucking weird crisis. Here are our favorite à la carte musical moments that have defined the first half of 2020.
50. Lizzo, “A Change Is Gonna Come”
The National Anthem for a country that hasn’t changed nearly enough since it was written, sung by our real president. She loves us, we got this, give her the EGOT. — Dan Weiss
49. Bob Dylan, “I Contain Multitudes”
“There’s so many ‘sides’ to Bob Dylan, he’s round,” somebody (Bob Dylan?) is supposed to have said; “I Contain Multitudes,” a revolving kaleidoscope of couplets and cliches, plays as a thesis statement for more than just Dylan’s late style. The Poe and Blake references are hilariously shallow, but a kaleidoscope doesn’t take you deeper into anything. Instead it reveals stranger things happening on the surface of the world than you could see before you started turning it, catching it in its own light. “Everything’s flowing, all at the same time,” this holographic projection of a singing Transcendental cowboy reports, and then makes an ominous allusion to John Wilkes Boothe, again. — Theon Weber
48. New Kids on the Block feat. Boyz II Men, Big Freedia, Jordin Sparks, & Naughty by Nature, “House Party”
1. The demand for new new jack swing greatly exceeds the supply; just look at Bruno Mars. God bless but he can’t take all those requests by himself. If he’s New Jack Santa Claus (with Another Bad Creation as his workshop of elves), these are his trusty reindeer: On Teddy, on Riley, on Nasty, on Freaky, on Tony, on Toni, on Toné, on Do Me, on Poison, on Cooleyhighharmony.
2. The last time Justin Timberlake had a song this good was “My Love.” Stay mad.
3. Yes, the video is a big part of it. Oh, I’m sorry, are you too busy to watch? — D.W.
47. Whethan feat. Grandson, “All in My Head”
Electro-pop producer Whethan lets his punk side shine on this two-and-a-half-minute heart racer. Wits are abandoned on the crunching, overripe bass and “Song 2″ clang of the beat, while Grandson’s angsty, apathetic vocals drip with the cocky attitude of disaffected youth. “All in My Head” wants you to make bad but harmless decisions, like doing donuts in the Walgreens parking lot. If you’re listening to this song, you’re 19. It doesn’t matter if you’re 45 years old, now you’re 19. — Kat Bein
46. Bright Eyes, “Persona Non Grata”
Conor Oberst is still a thoughtful, songful, extravagantly detailed troubadour under his own name. His self-titled 2008 record ranks among the very top of his achievements, and the hydraulic anticapitalist outrage of Desaparecidos was ahead of the curve on both Occupy and the triumph of St. Bernard. But his emo quotient as Bright Eyes has incomparable gravitas. The strophic New Dylan-ing, the labyrinthine album intros, the Donnie Darko stare above the mouth where quavering doomsday-prophet lyrics come out; it’s been nine years since any of it. The new dystopia is putting on a kilt to the strains of a Bollywood song, for a date, no less, with someone “underfed and depressed.” And then come the bagpipes. — D.W.
45. Breland, “My Truck”
If the song’s not stuck in your head within 40 seconds, you win a free truck. There won’t be any winners today. Except for Sam Hunt, who would like his Billy Ray “Old Town Road” money now. — D.W.
44. The Strokes, “The Adults Are Talking”
“They will blame us, crucify and shame us / We can’t help it, if we are a problem,” Julian Casablancas murmurs, exacting, coiled, so, so numb. “We are trying hard to get your attention.” He could be singing for or to your parents, your children, you. Impeccably syncopated and broadly halcyon, “The Adults Are Talking” exists in a murky space where past, present, and future intersect, uncertainly — that grey area where Philip Larkin’s famed poem “This Be The Verse” makes more sense than any of us would care to admit. Meanwhile, the music bears an overdetermined, filigreed snap that, somehow, the Strokes execute offhandedly, casually, with a patient elan. — Raymond Cummings
43. Rina Sawayama, “STFU!”
Rina Sawayama threw nü-metal a surprise party for its 20th birthday and everyone’s invited, except for the real-life industry racists whose comments her antagonist/dinner date quoted verbatim in the video. Let the bodies hit the floor, starting with those guys. — D.W.
42. Caribou, “New Jade”
“Dolla dealin’ passer?” “Dolphin dealer passive?” The sampled vocal loop that opens “New Jade” is essentially gibberish — Dan Snaith has squished the sound into a strange new shape, fashioning yet another hypnotic, electronic hook from a second-long snippet of melody. After a couple repetitions of the line, the tongue-speaking sounds like a familiar language. New questions arise: Is that a synth or a pitch-shifted guitar? Hold up, a hammered dulcimer? — Ryan Reed
41. ITZY, “Wannabe”
That the winding music-box noises, flamenco guitar strums, will.i.am-circa-“Scream and Shout” sub-bass presets, and skittering Timbaland programming all assert themselves before the first verse has ended is a hallmark of the best generation-blending K-Pop maximalism. The keep-it-simple-stupid chorus (“I don’t want to be somebody / Just wanna be me” — who can’t relate?) is a respectable interjection from the West. And the dancing could come from anywhere if you believe in yourself. — D.W.
40. Chad Matheny, “The Ballad of HPAE Local 5058”
As the brainy Emperor X, Chad Matheny has proffered astoundingly empathetic laptop-emo-folk tunes for more than 20 years. But in the last few, surviving his own battle with testicular cancer has only sharpened a determination to clarify the world’s unsolvable healthcare crisis to the faithful tune-seekers that sponsor his Bandcamp releases. “I owe 30,000 euros to the German corporation / That just cured me of a terminal cancer / Now I’ve got 87 notices reminding me / They can’t care at all if my ending came too soon,” he sang in 2017, devoid of metaphor. Three years later, he resurrects the old Woody Guthrie template to dig deeper into that industry’s corruption, even going as far as calling out the “stockpiles of PPE” not serviced to healthcare workers. What does it mean when a singer-songwriter’s specifics are more painstakingly reported than entire websites claiming journalism? He even cites his sources. — D.W.
39. Eminem feat. Juice WRLD, “Godzilla”
Eminem is more or less a fire hydrant at this point, with a reliably unstoppable flow, but it’s often not necessary and sometimes even in the way. When you need it, though, it doesn’t take long to realize how much you take its presence for granted. Sure, that metaphor was a little slippery, but the man’s fripperies can still cripple these peripheral MCs in triplicate and rip them to bits while they’re taking shits and be a pain in their ass like pilonidal cysts. — D.W.
38. Hailey Whitters, “All the Cool Girls”
You work with Lori McKenna (“Girl Crush,” “Humble and Kind”) if you want a great tune, not a TikTok smash. So here’s a cheerfully snippy one from a wallflower trying to get her Daria on but can’t play it, well, cool enough to be dispassionate observer, and before she knows it, the whole cigarette pack is gone. Just because “all the cool girls can’t decide who they want to be tonight” doesn’t make her feel more at ease, so why not, over verses that hint at spooky dub, contemplate joining them? Sometimes a “midsummer night dream / the top-down Cadillac, blue jeans” requires just the right balance of self-assurance, longing to be someone else, and a killer chorus. — D.W.
37. Jasmine Infiniti, “Yes, Sir”
If we must live with a throbbing, blistering headache through the waking hours, it’s only fair that we are allowed to dance to it. The degraded sonics, irretrievable sample, hi-hats rusted into a wet rattle of chainlinks, bass coiled around your nerves like an inoperable tumor, all it points to is that the only true drop in this world is death. — D.W.
36. Billie Eilish, “No Time to Die”
It’s safe to say that 2020 doesn’t suck for Billie Eilish. Not long after turning 18, she scooped the Big Four awards at the Grammys and made history before following that up with another milestone: Becoming the youngest artist to pen and record a theme song to a James Bond film. “No Time to Die” — as always, written with her brother FINNEAS — is one for the Bond tune pantheon alongside Adele’s “Skyfall” and Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever,” thanks to Eilish’s beyond-her-years soprano that tops a quietly haunted melody with icicles. The movie’s release may have been pushed back, but by the time theaters are a thing again, its theme song will have already conquered audiences worldwide. — Jolie Lash
35. King Von, “Took Her to the O”
You try enunciating the word “Kankakee” six times in one song without your tongue turning to molasses.— D.W.
34. The 1975, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”
Matt Healy personifies the restless millennial id, so who better than the 1975 frontman to document the sadness, hilarity, awkwardness and — just maybe — euphoria of the erotic Zoom call? After a swirl of ghostly ambience, with FKA twigs’ choral voice amongst the reverb, the band slips into the kind of revisionist ’80s posh sheen that few others can convincingly pull off. (These sort of suicide missions are the 1975’s whole Thing.) There’s a gleaming, high-octave guitar lick. There’s a sax solo that bridges Spandau Ballet’s “True” and M83’s “Midnight City.” Then there’s Healy, recounting his FaceTime hook-up with journaled detail. “I just wanted a happy ending,” he sings. Now we all need a towel. — R.R.
33. Psychic Graveyard, “No”
Every person mourns in their own unique way, but the bereaved clod Psychic Graveyard singer Eric Paul invents for “No” is in a league of his very own. This guy’s solipsistic, overly literal, his mind orbiting another planet, the mix unevenly doubling his inner monologues: “What do I wear to your funeral / When we were together, I never wore clothes.” Synth player Nathan Joyner, guitarist Paul Vieira, and drummer Charles Ovett all up the psychodrama by savage degrees, leading off with a grinding, foghorn dirge that eventually expands into a punishing industrial hailstorm. Of course the home of this bleak, dour thrill is entitled A Bluebird Vacation. — R.C.
32. Banoffee, “Permission”
Rape is no longer a taboo subject. Hell, both of America’s major party presidential nominees have been accused of sexual assault. Society is overdue to face the music, and in the case of Australian dancer-turned-singer Banoffee’s sparse electro-ballad “Permission,” the intimate, arresting track is both sobering and empowering, a standout between Look at Us Now Dad’s glittering, synth-heavy bops. “It was a way of me processing how my boundaries had been broken,” she told NPR. “I expected people to love me a certain way, but it very quickly twists into something darker and more sinister and speaks about the type of consent that can be broken, that can break someone.” — K.B.
31. Sada Baby feat. King Von, “Pressin”
In a scene with no shortage of local legends (Veeze, Drego and Beno), Sada Baby stands tall as the most prominent figure of Detroit’s current street rap renaissance. As prolific as he is charismatic, Sada will aggressively, gleefully rap about pouring pints and stealing your girl in the same breath. “Pressin” is the biggest standout from Skuba Sada 2, the second Sada Baby project of 2020 before we even reached the halfway point. The funereal keys and ricocheting, mortar-round drums lay the perfect foundation for Sada and King Von’s tag-team threats. You don’t want to get clowned by a dude who even jokes about calling himself a “walking lick.” — Max Bell
30. tricot, “真っ黒 (Makkuro)”
If there were any justice, the success of 2019’s biggest rock breakthrough, black midi — a band that makes it more frustrating that there’s no easy portmanteau of “virtuosic” and “perverse” (pervertuosic?) — would’ve opened the floodgates for these decade-strong Kyoto math-rockers. Except where Geordie Greep gurgles like he’s about to rip the ring off Frodo’s finger, Ikkyu Nakajima sings and even harmonizes pretty and emotive; one of the few math-rockers to actually add up to something. She moves with a purpose. — D.W.
29. TOKiMONSTA feat. EARTHGANG, “Fried for the Night”
Tune in, turn on, and drop it down low with L.A. beat queen Jennifer Lee’s surrealistic slow grind. “Fried for the Night” is a rave and a half, thanks in good part to Atlanta duo Earthgang’s trippy flows. The monolithic lead single from her sixth full-length Oasis Nocturna is, in TOKiMONSTA’s own words, “dedicated to those psychedelic moments where our reality opens up a new point of view.” Your move, Ibiza. — K.B.
28. Playboi Carti, “@Meh”
Given Playboi Carti’s event-horizon approach to the hook, in which repeating a dense syllable or two often enough collapses a track into it like light, you might imagine you can hear “@MEH” in your head without playing it. But Carti is a satellite here, not a singularity; his syrupy chirp laps in decaying orbit around an obsessive 16-bit music-box burble that’s the track’s real center of gravity. Carti swallows and mumbles boasts like they’re being transmitted across a vast distance; every now and then the beat below throws out an arpeggio like a flare. — T.W.
27. Skeleton, “Catacombs”
This punishing Austin trio have only grown more turgid and volcanic since their earlier EPs. They spend this first taste of their upcoming eponymous debut album unloading their blackened punk-metal like a cement mixer operating directly above your face, each successive jackhammer of double-bass drum pushing more wet concrete into your nostrils. Hey, no kinkshaming. — D.W.
26. Jay Electronica feat. Jay-Z, “Flux Capacitor”
Kudos to whichever dogs and cats living together it took for Jay Electronica to realize he’d better dust off this so-called album before there isn’t a world to release it in anymore. But its densest production is somehow also its most old-school, and we’ll leave that for co-conspirator and ace Rihanna sampler James Blake to sort out. It’s too bad Jay and Jay didn’t release this in the midst of Lemonade fever because then we could compare these rejuvenated middle-aged pals’ opus to Harry Nilsson and John Lennon’s lost weekend. Jay-Z preens like his pre-billionaire self (“Why would I not have a watch like a Saudi prince?”) and Jay-E recycles that old hip-hop saw of switching deftly from Nation of Islam big-ups to Cutty Ranks-inspired trash talk (“Send for the hacksaw / Take out the tongue”). A midlife crisis to nod your head to. — D.W.
25. The Magnetic Fields, “The Day the Politicians Died”
Like Distortion’s “California Girls,” this mordant little ditty from the world’s preeminent wholesaler of mordant little ditties decorates a murderous fantasy with the reedy innocence of Claudia Gonson’s voice. But that song mined its deadpan lulz from the over-the-top solipsism of Stephin Merritt’s homicidal distaste; here, if anything, the (grimmer, funnier) joke is how straight this wishful piano sketch can be taken, as petty private revenge fades into universal liberation. “It’s all one big party now,” it concludes before two minutes are up, but not before rhyming “we’re different from the beasts” with “let’s eat all the priests.” — T.W.
24. lojii, “lo&behold”
On Due Rent, his 2017 Swarvy-produced album, Philadelphia’s lojii rapped with refreshing candidness about his financial struggles: “I still ain’t make a check but I’m takin’ bets.” This year’s lo&behold is a spiritual sequel in the most literal sense; lojii delivers diaristic verses that find him pushing past an existential crisis about his life and career. And the title track showcases the power of his deftly unadorned prose, his resonant but low, slightly raspy voice. Swarvy’s thumping, downtempo suite soundtracks lojii’s submission to fate, his embrace of patience. It’s the core of an album that finds peace in the process of creation without the certainty of reward. — M.B.
23. Dreamcatcher(드림캐쳐), “Scream”
Equipped with a full-spectrum payload of pomo pop-rock weaponry — darkly twinkling Evanescence verses, Jim Steinman-core guitar-opera bombast with attendant postreunion Fall Out Boy whoa-ohs, wordless chorus that is both rock riff and EDM drop, at least one rap breakdown, broadsword in 4K video — Dreamcatcher take an only-way-to-be-sure approach to three-minute song. “Scream” fuses the whiplash precision of K-pop with a genre of melodramatic electro-rock that had already ripped most of it off anyway; it sounds like you’re hearing two of it at the same time, like eating a Big Mac. — T.W.
22. Lil Wayne, “Mama Mia”
The Best Rapper Alive can’t necessarily turn it off and on at will anymore, but he can, apparently, still turn it off and on. This is an on, his most jovial and rewarding track since 2015’s James Brown-flipping “I Feel Good” (which, sadly, isn’t on YouTube), and it even comes with a strong, if long, full-length, Funeral. The shockingly downcast Carter V was even longer, though, and freed from that burden’s expectations, Tunechi rediscovers a looseness we’ve all been missing, so delighting in his own “Titty-fuck your baby mama / She breastfeed your child while I do it” boast that he has to repeat it twice. You already know how great he can be at his best, and “Mama Mia” comes close enough to it that Weezy himself may still be the best thing on a song that’s an early candidate for the year’s best beat (someone’s been listening to Sophie!) and video (the Wu-Tang hoodies, the CGI baby, the monkey heads). — D.W.
21. Dixie Chicks, “Gaslighter”
After the right-wing shitheads of country radio forced them into exile, Dixie Chicks returned from a decade-plus hiatus with “Gaslighter,” a scathing power-pop anthem that’s equally empowering and raging. Featuring the sorely missed country trio’s radiant, signature harmonies and Jack Antonoff’s widescreen production (those drum bursts), “Gaslighter” is a rallying cry against an irredeemable liar that not so subtly pays homage to the group’s earlier kiss-offs, “Goodbye Earl” and “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Except this one’s chorus is even harder to get out of your head: “Gaslighter, big timer / Repeating all of the mistakes of your father,” taunts long-suffering divorcée Natalie Maines. She doesn’t owe anyone an explanation. Still, we’re dying to know: What exactly happened on her boat? — Ilana Kaplan
20. Thundercat, “Dragonball Durag”
Of all things, venerable Los Angeles bassist Stephen Bruner has recently become the most unexpected (and funkiest) ambassador of yacht rock. You can hear the processed smoothness all over “Dragonball Durag,” where Thundercat comes off like the awkward man’s Barry White and somehow ends up with his catchiest-ever solo tune. In the hilariously on-the-nose video, he finds the titular durag in the trash and suddenly thinks he’s Stanley Ipkiss in The Mask, failing to woo the likes of Kali Uchis, comedian Quinta Brunson, and finally, an amused-but-not-really HAIM. Next time on Dragon Ball Z: Will Thundercat enjoy piña coladas and getting caught in the rain? — Daniel Kohn
19. Erik Griswold, “The Hive”
The only thing more badass than a piano orchestra is a prepared piano orchestra. “The Hive” wasn’t titled arbitrarily; set upon by 16 pianists, these 16 eerily tuned pianos churn out fathomless melodies that shudder from dolor to ecstasy and back. It’s as though you’re stuck in “the Shimmer” from Jeff VanDerMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy — literally rooted there, in the process of becoming a tree. With this recording, the spark that fueled this year’s All’s Grist That Comes to the Mill, Brisbane composer Erik Griswold has unleashed a tyranny that doubles as a deliverance. — R.C.
18. The Used, “Blow Me”
Admit it, your money was not on the Used in the 2020 comeback sweepstakes, and even the scene kids were caught off guard by this slab of bleeding meat thrown to them like dogs. A reasonable convert hears some Snapcase in “Blow Me,” but no one who’s being honest can take In Utero off the table entirely. The breakdown is admirably psychotic; if you’re even a little bit curious you should get in the pit with this nailbomb. Just, you know, shield your face. — D.W.
17. Roddy Ricch, “The Box”
Rap songs that top the Hot 100 for two months have historically been party anthems like “In Da Club” or “Hot in Herre” that were expertly engineered for crossover success. But Compton rapper Roddy Ricch has ruled the charts in 2020 with an ominous, mid-tempo trap beat and an intricate chorus that features 93 words and about three different vocal melodies. In the streaming era, the good fortune of being the first song on an album people love, like Roddy’s blockbuster Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial, counts more than universal appeal. But that silly “ehh-err” vocal loop probably helped. — Al Shipley
16. Phoebe Bridgers, “Kyoto”
You know you’re a bonafide pop star-qua-singer-songwriter once you’re learned how to transmute interior ennui into a world-beating anthem. “Kyoto” the song feels regal, soaring, aloft on golden horn charts, even while Phoebe Bridgers, its author, stews at the center of this pealing storm. She blows off Japanese destinations while on tour, meandering through insecurities, memories, regrets, tumbling deep into her notebook. There’s a bummed out exhilaration here in this warm, intimate re-re-reminder that wherever you happen to go, there you ultimately are. — R.C.
15. Disclosure feat. Eka Roosevelt, “Tondo”
Everyone’s favorite U.K. house brothers quietly closed out February with their most surefire dynamite in years. Its Ecstasy EP took their sampling skills to new heights, the peak of which manifested in the vibrant swing of “Tondo,” built generously and brilliantly from Cameroonian musician Eko Roosevelt’s 1985 disco-funk banger “Tondoho Mba.” It just thumps a little heavier now, with a fresh new coat of groove. — K.B.
14. Halsey, “You Should Be Sad”
If “You Should Be Sad” is any inclination, Halsey could make a camp-country album that would leave both Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus proud. The Manic highlight recalls the singer’s rage against an unfaithful ex-lover, strengthening an Americana-tinged ballad with tense rock riffs. “You can’t fill the hole inside of you with money, girls, and cars / I’m so glad I never ever had a baby with you,” she seethes. The song is best heard with its accompanying visual, which takes place in an underground western nightclub and nods to idols as disparate Christina Aguilera, Shania Twain, and Lady Gaga circa American Horror Story. She makes this whole “sad” business sound pretty fun, really. — I.K.
13. Sam Hunt, “Hard to Forget”
“Hard to Forget” does exactly what it says on the label; the hooks will fuck up your summer more than the titular girl in the dress does to Sam Hunt’s. For a country song, it’s got shocking range, pulling in not just Hunt’s signature trap 808s but a prominent sample of Webb Pierce’s 1953 No. 1 song “There Stands the Glass” and even some reggae-lite guitar on the verses. The Pierce tune is woven throughout what may well be country’s first charting hit containing a sample (that isn’t named “Old Town Road,” anyway) and functions as an old-timey parallel to Hunt’s song. “There Stands the Glass” concerned imbibing the sauce to keep thoughts from straying to heartbreak, and Hunt’s modern-country vocal is equally haunted by an ex. Plenty of country music time-travels to the past, but how much of it goes back to the future? — J.L.
12. Lady Gaga, “Stupid Love”
Lady Gaga took pride in being practically the only pop diva who never needed Max Martin’s help making a hit. But she recently decided to, in her own words, “stop being an asshole” and meet Martin, who co-wrote the blaring Chromatica lead single, which has her first-, second-, and third-best hooks in years. Everything about “Stupid Love” (even the title) reeks of a concerted effort to return Lady Gaga to the loud, garish pop throne she commanded so naturally circa The Fame Monster. And after a year of singing tasteful ballads with Bradley Cooper, good — we like her best at her most shameless. We want her stupid, oh, you know. — A.S.
11. Run the Jewels feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier, “Ooh La La”
Three albums and countless summer festivals later, Run the Jewels remain united by their affinity for rap and weed, their antipathy for fuckboys, the law, and craven politicians. The important things. “Ooh La La,” the first single from the forthcoming RTJ4, is a cross-generational rap fever dream that proves Killer Mike and El-P’s synergy remains undiminished. (We’ll see about Mavis Staples and Josh Homme’s.) This is rap as tag-team WWE, the outrageous braggadocio of one half inspiring more outlandish boasts from the other. With a hook that samples Greg Nice from Gang Starr’s classic “Dwyck” and scratches from DJ Premier himself, “Ooh La La” pays homage to RTJ’s predecessors while remaining irreverent to everyone and everything else. The perfect soundtrack for pissing on a passing royal’s footwear. — M.B.
10. Waxahatchee, “Fire”
Katie Crutchfield achieves Peak Road Anthem with this windows-down tribute to the power of self-love — the warmest and wisest moment on Saint Cloud, her warmest and wisest Waxahatchee LP. Over unobtrusive electric piano, fidgety, palm-muted guitar, and eventually, a loping drum beat, Crutchfield spills out her guts to the most important partner of all: herself. “If I could love you unconditionally,” she sings with a hint of twang, “I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky.” — R.R.
9. Rosalía, “Juro Que”
No need to mince words; Rosalía is the most arresting singer on the planet. Her gymnastic vibrato conveys every pixel of emotion on her 2018 breakthrough El Mal Querer but she has plenty of fun just flexing it as a muscle, whether it’s deployed on a miniature opera or a fully quantized urbano song. That balance between her academic virtuosity and her bleeding-edge pop transmissions — and that voice — is why she’s as poised as anyone to become the Beyoncé of the 2020s. Her video for “Juro Que” is typically cinematic, befitting a political song about a prison wall dividing lovers. Just wait until she starts chanting the title, “juro que, juro que, juro que” (“I swear that, I swear that, I swear that”) until it glitches out in a psychedelic Auto-Tune orgy. Anyway, walls are for shitbags. — D.W.
8. HAIM, “The Steps”
Like the ditched boyfriends in the video for “The Wire,” we don’t deserve HAIM. The only thing sisters Este, Alana, and Danielle can’t do is wrong, which is probably why their third LP, Women in Music Pt. III, has taken so long to cook. Perfectionism makes, well, perfect: “The Steps” brings contemporary pop back to Buckingham-Nicks and the Laurel Canyon scene, with its ache-driven, country-tinged harmonies, warm bass, and crying guitar solo. Documenting a pretty doomed relationship (“Every time I think that I’ve been taking the steps / You end up mad at me for making a mess”) – those pre-breakup frustrations have never sounded so blissful. — J.L.
7. Maddie & Tae, “Write a Book”
Madison Font and Tae Kerr were just teenagers when their debut single “Girl in a Country Song” cleverly stirred up debates about Bro-Country sexism in 2014. Half a decade later, they’ve finally returned with a sophomore album that fulfills the duo’s early songwriting potential with a song cycle about love and heartbreak that’s rife with observational detail. Most of the highlights on The Way It Feels focus on the pain of a breakup, but the bubbly “Write a Book” is an addictive ode to a guy who’s qualified to write a bestseller about how to be a dreamy boyfriend. — A.S.
6. Christine and the Queens, “People, I’ve been sad”
In 2008, Brandon Flowers posed the question, “Are we human, or are we dancer?” It only took 12 years for Héloïse Letissier to definitively answer “both.” One needn’t watch the video for “People, I’ve Been Sad” to know that the physicality of Letissier’s performance is intertwined with the elegiac beauty of her impassioned vocal. Heart-wrenching and delicate, the long-running contender’s new signature tune braids moody ’80s synths and a thicket of call-response vocals that weigh the cost of stepping back from the fullness of life. This one gets our vote for the pandemic’s unofficial theme song — and most inspired modern dance? — J.L.
5. Poppy, “Concrete”
Poppy thrives on disorientation, cramming her spastic “post-genre” hybrids with emotional and sonic contrasts: the menacing distortion of metal, the sugary intensity of J-pop, the mechanical chill of industrial. But “Concrete,” the opener and centerpiece of her third LP, is discombobulating in a way that can only be described, in totality, as “prog”: Electronic drones bleed into metallic guitar fireworks, and djent-y riffs careen into landscapes of billowing Pet Sounds vocal harmonies. Sure, she’s showing off — and it’s working. Poppy is one of the few artists alive who can elicit a genuine WTF — and how many of those can make “Bohemian Rhapsody” cross your mind? — R.R.
4. Hayley Williams, “Sugar on the Rim”
One of the things Hayley Williams has always known is that you have to take the bad with the good, but knowing is one thing and being at ease is another. So the woman who at 19 could write a song so enthusiastically candid about her own capacity for selfish vindictiveness that having grown up she no longer feels comfortable singing it, and at 21, could sum up the behind-the-music nightmare chronicled on Brand New Eyes by swearing she’d “never trade it in”, is only now able to write and casually deliver this slithering tropical bop about silver linings in bad love — and if it isn’t love after all, “Maybe we just had to feel it / So we know the difference.” — T.W.
3. Megan Thee Stallion, “Captain Hook”
The phrase “Captain Hook” isn’t, strictly speaking, the hook of “Captain Hook”— that duty’s pulled by the sound of a sword being sharpened, with an assist from the long vowels Megan habitually splays out like dissected frogs — and it isn’t the climax either, and it isn’t spoken more than once. But like you she knows a hook when she hears one: It’s the right title, because the image it completes sticks so neatly in the mind, it’s barbed. Two minutes later, when the song’s over, it’ll be the joke you hit repeat to hear again. — T.W.
2. Fiona Apple, “Heavy Balloon”
Bookended by electric clanging, Fiona Apple’s “Heavy Balloon” grapples with the crippling weight of the singer’s lifelong depression. With Apple’s smoky contralto hanging over the skeletal track, she confronts her internal strife, but doesn’t sink into it. After trekking through mud, the culmination of her own growth is the hilarious gutsiness of the toughest-sounding chorus on her amazing record using gardening similes: “I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans / I’ve been sucking it in so long / That I’m bursting at the seams.” — I.K.
1. Dua Lipa, “Don’t Start Now”
Exes — both toxic and not — attempting to reconnect during the global coronavirus pandemic has unfortunately been an actual thing. Luckily, we’ve had Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” as a swift, anthemic antidote – all about moving on while not actually forgetting. The first single off the left-field Grammy winner’s floor-ready Future Nostalgia is a modern disco classic, with house piano stabs and pocket-orchestra flourishes underscoring a vocal turn both sultry and unforgiving. But if anything will get us through that breakup — or this Black Mirror of a year — it’s that walking, talking, pirouetting bass line, pop’s best in recent memory. An “I Will Survive” for an era when we really need the reassurance. — J.L.