Well, it certainly was an unusual year for pop music, wasn’t it?
Taylor Swift had the biggest album of the period with a surprise indie-folk LP, radio records were broken by The Weeknd (sure) and 24kGoldn and iann dior (more surprising), and Nicki Minaj finally scored the first Hot 100 chart-topper of her decade-plus of superstardom — only to score a second barely a month later. Imagine trying to explain to folks in 2015 that a half-decade later, we’d get Jason Derulo’s first No. 1 since the ’00s, BTS’ second No. 1 of that month, and the No.1 bow for a previously unknown New Zealand teenager named Jawsh 365 — all on the same song. (And then imagine trying to explain how a new video-sharing service called TikTok helped make it all happen.)
And oh yeah, there was that whole global shutdown thing that happened two and a half months into the year — which gave Taylor the time and space to record and release Folklore less than a year after her last LP, which made radio rally around the same handful of comfort-food pop hits to an unprecedented level, and which made the top of the Hot 100 chaotic enough that we had 20 different No. 1s over the space of the year’s final nine months. (And if you thought TikTok was influential before, that of course proved to be a gentle nudge compared to the full-body impact it flexed once the youth of America had less reason than ever not to spend all day on their phones.)
But even if 2020 proved to be a very strange place for pop music, it was also an undeniably fruitful one. The uptempo revival that started to warm up on top 40 at the end of 2019 broke into a full-on sprint in early 2020, resulting in some of the best synth-pop and disco-based hits we’ve heard on the FM dial in ages. Hip-hop’s billion dollar Babies ruled the summer with open-hearted hits that reflected unthinkably turbulent times while still sounding massive blaring out of car stereos. And Billboard‘s new Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart demonstrated just how wide-ranging the genres had become, with chart-toppers from such increasingly unclassifiable artists as Juice WRLD, Billie Eilish, and indeed, Ms. Swift.
And as with all other things 2020, there’s one descriptor for the year in pop that, for better and worse, absolutely no one would argue with: unforgettable. Here are the 100 songs we hope to remember it most by. (Songs were eligible if they either were released or peaked on the Billboard charts in 2020 — unless, like “Watermelon Sugar” or “Don’t Start Now,” they already made our 2019 list.)
100. Black Eyed Peas & J Balvin, “RITMO (Bad Boys For Life)”
The under-the-radar comeback story of 2020 was that of ’00s pop-rap radio conquerors Black Eyed Peas, who decided the rising trend of Latin stars pilfering pop hooks from a generation earlier was their best way back into top 40’s good graces. Quibble with the intentions if you wish, but the results spoke for themselves — particularly on the Corona-sampling J Balvin “RITMO,” the theme to 2019’s Bad Boys For Life that climbed to No. 26 on the Hot 100 in 2020. Slightly grating at first, its goofy hybrid charms (both borrowed and new) won you over with radio overplay — just like so many BEPs jams had decades earlier — and by the time the group was closing the VMAs (with light-up crotches and UFOs hovering overhead), it was clear you’d missed them more than you realized. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
99. Little Mix, “Sweet Melody”
Little Mix’s sixth album Confetti is a front-to-back must-hear, but if you only have three minutes to spare, please do spend it listening to the set’s third single “Sweet Melody,” a slick banger co-written by frequent Ariana Grande collaborator Tayla Parx and produced by MNEK, one of pop’s biggest secret weapons. The track starts off with a hymn-like intro and it simply gets better from there, as Perrie, Jesy, Leigh-Anne and Jade deliver an absolutely sizzling takedown of Some Dude in a Band who “would lie, he would cheat, over syncopated beats.” Serve! — GAB GINSBERG
98. Jayda G, “Both of Us”
The relentless piano hook in this sunny electronic bop from Canadian DJ-producer Jayda G sounds like it could go on forever, and it should. Paired with the artist’s icy vocals and an unexpected, crawling breakdown two-thirds through, “Both Of Us” induces that particular wave of nostalgia for dancing in a sweaty crowd. Thankfully, the (now Grammy-nominated!) track is just as infectious when dancing alone in your living room, solidifying Jayda G as one of this year’s brightest new talents. — TATIANA CIRISANO
97. Morgan Wallen, “More Than My Hometown”
Romantic love’s tug can be impossible to resist, but it doesn’t compare to the love Wallen feels for his hometown — or his lover’s need to pack her bags and follow her dreams on this gentle, mid-tempo ballad. Wallen cleverly describes the many ways that he loves his “girl,” but quaintly confesses (in a clever reference to Conway Twitty) that “this may be the last time I get to lay you down” — as his love ends up on the losing end of his titular affection. Part of the Country Airplay chart-topper’s appeal is the lack of vitriol or bitterness, just a sad realization that sometimes love isn’t enough. — MELINDA NEWMAN
96. BLACKSTARKIDS, “BRITNEY BITCH”
One of the year’s most charmingly low-key pop songs came from Kansas City trio BLACKSTARKIDS, whose DIY aesthetic and ’90s alternative influences don’t preclude ’00s daydreams about living life like the titular all-capped icon, along with other video greats of the late-MTV era. The song’s twinkling synth riff and cloudy sung-rapped vocals might ultimately be a little too lo-fi to get the young group onto any modern-day TRL equivalent, but the energy and hooks are infectious enough to inspire plenty of their own acolytes. — A.U.
95. Kylie Minogue, “Say Something”
With lyrics about “wanderlust in the darkest place” and feeling “a million miles apart,” the least disco-y song on Minogue’s DISCO captured 2020 malaise with startling accuracy. (She wrote it in September 2019.) But don’t be so surprised: Whether it’s across the room at a club or across continents on KM Air, the pop legend’s biggest and best songs have always been about the magic of seeking connection — even if it turns out you can’t find it right now. — NOLAN FEENEY
94. Ozuna feat. Karol G & Myke Towers, “Caramelo” (Remix)
The first single of Ozuna’s ENOC is a sticky track, made sweeter still by Karol G’s female touch and Myke Tower’s deeper baritone on the song’s redo, contrasting with Ozuna’s high tenor. “Caramelo” doesn’t go the raunchy remix route, but instead, sticks close to the whimsy of the original — sexy but not explicit, suggestive but never showing too much. It helps, of course, that Ozuna has an uncanny knack for penning highly melodic tracks with immediately catchy choruses. The original “Caramelo” was a pop smash with a reggaetón beat, but the remix lends it additional texture to make it totally delectable. — LEILA COBO
93. Kane Brown feat. Swae Lee & Khalid, “Be Like That”
Typically, failed relationships lead to somber breakup anthems, but in the case of Kane Brown’s “Be Like That,” he’s in an upbeat mood when chalking up his losses. By enlisting Khalid and Swae Lee, the country superstar creates a hybrid superteam eager to bounce back and secure true love the next time around. Brown’s summery vibe resonated with down-but-not-out lovers, as it became a top 20 success on the Hot 100. — CARL LAMARRE
92. Saweetie, “Tap In”
A pro in both repping the Bay Area and sampling some of its most esteemed natives, Saweetie amplifies her hometown hyphy energy from Too $hort’s “Blow The Whistle,” while summoning the Icy girls with her “Tap In” alarm. The song’s hard 808s and signature whistle backing her bars could equally soundtrack a day party and a nightclub with its old-school hip-hop swagger. — HERAN MAMO
91. Hinds, “Good Bad Times”
The formidable Spanish quartet returned this year with the tongue-in-cheek tune “Good Bad Times” about falling out with a former lover. The second single off their third album showcases a playful and newly polished sound from the indie rockers as they note, “Maybe I’m no longer/ As nice as you think.” Their third album also marks the first time the group has delivered lyrics in their native language of Spanish, with “Good Bad Times” serving as a double condemnation of their ex, in case they didn’t get it the first time in English. — TAYLOR MIMS
90. Camila Cabello feat. DaBaby, “My Oh My”
The sixth and highest-charting single of Camila Cabello’s underrated 2019 sophomore effort Romance, “My Oh My” finds the former Fifth Harmony member lusting after a proverbial bad boy whose black leather jacket and bad reputation have become an insatiable habit. And while the DaBaby-assisted bop may have failed to reach the same stratospheric chart heights as previous smashes “Havana” and “Señorita,” when Cabello wails “I swear on my life that I’ve been a good girl/ Tonight, I don’t want to be her,” it’s proof that sometimes the best kind of Romance can happen when a good girl lets go and goes bad. — GLENN ROWLEY
89. Lewis Capaldi, “Before You Go”
If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, and there was certainly nothing broken about Lewis Capaldi’s debut hit “Someone You Loved,” which rose to No. 1 on the Hot 100 at the tail end of 2019. Listeners’ ears were primed and ready to hear more of his booming voice singing those longing lyrics that hit you right in the feels, and “Before You Go” delivered just that. Slowly but surely, it rose to No. 1 on Billboard‘s Pop Songs chart, completing the longest journey to the top of that ranking in Billboard history, inviting listeners to 37 weeks of belting out the tune along the way. — BECKY KAMINSKY
88. Love Regenerator, “Peace Love Happiness”
A lot of things about 2020 were unpredictable, including the acid house project we got from Calvin Harris. Under his Love Regenerator alias, the mainstage mainstay went underground, making the same kind of squelchy four-to-the-floor scorchers that inspired him to make dance music in the first place. The best of this output was “Peace Love Happiness” a swirling peak-time anthem with a hard-hitting, deceptively simple hook that we’d have certainly heard in heavy rotation at the club, if, well…y’know. — KATIE BAIN
87. Soccer Mommy, “Circle the Drain”
Right in time for what would become many people’s hardest year ever, Soccer Mommy released one of the most unflinchingly accurate songs ever written about depression. In the deceptively breezy-sounding “Circle the Drain,” taken off her sophomore album Color Theory, the indie singer-songwriter makes space for both fleeting patches of happiness and despairingly dark ones, acknowledging that “things feel that low sometimes/ even when everything is fine.” The song’s gentle acoustic pull is proof that sometimes, it’s more comforting to have someone simply reflect your struggles, however dark and twisty, than to try and fix them.. — TATIANA CIRISANO
86. Sada Baby feat. Nicki Minaj, “Whole Lotta Choppas” (Remix)
Detroit cult favorite MC Sada Baby finally went overground in 2020 with the limber Tag Team vibes of “Whole Lotta Choppas,” featuring the rapper teasing, threatening and shimmying in his thousand-dollar pants over an irresistible electro-thumping beat. The song snuck onto the Hot 100 on its own, but was catapulted into the top 40 thanks to a remix featuring the always-game Nicki Minaj, rhyming “erotic” with “Giannis” and picking up steam over her verse until you have no choice but to start breaking out the shaka-laka, shaka-lakas. — A.U.
85. Powfu feat. beabadoobee, “Death Bed (Coffee For Your Head)”
A surprise collab — probably because it wasn’t really a collab so much as Canadian artist Powfu sampling British-Filipino alt-rock powerhouse beabadoobee’s 2017 cut “Coffee” — “death bed” was nonetheless the type of melancholy earworm that made it perfect for the strangeness that was 2020. The pitched-up, almost alien quality of beabadoobee’s voice somehow doesn’t remove the earnestness of her original track, which allowed Powfu to flip it into a slacker-friendly TikTok anthem about mortality that catapulted it onto the pop, rock, rap and dance charts alike. — DAN RYS
84. Kississippi, “Around Your Room”
It took Taylor Swift a quarter-century to pay musical tribute to the year 1989, and just six years for her 2014 album to inspire Philly indie outfit Kississippi, judging from the the sound of “Around Your Room.” The new-wave-y synth bop, with handclaps, syncopated cymbals and a reference to Cyndi Lauper’s “remake” of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” establishes an infectious throwback vibe, while frontwoman Zoe Reynolds’ all-in lovesick vocals (“I’m feeling just like a child/ Starstruck, wallowing/ Spellbound in reverie”) sell the song with Swiftian assuredness. — FRANK DIGIACOMO
83. Maroon 5, “Memories”
In a lyrical and melodic departure for the Adam Levine-led group, this unlikely reggae-meets-“Canon in D”-inspired track serves as a tribute to the band’s former manager and friend, Jordan Feldstein, who died in 2017. With somber lyrics like “Now my heart feels like December when somebody says your name/ ‘Cause I can’t reach out to call you, but I know I will one day, yeah,” the song is the perfect reminder to raise a glass to those who have left us in a year filled with so much loss. — MELINDA NEWMAN
82. Eslabon Armado, “Con Tus Besos”
This regional Mexican teenage trio proved that you don’t need raunchy lyrics to make a hit in 2020. Placing all bets instead on an ultra-romantic ballad, frontman Pedro Tovar innocently sings, “You make me feel good with your kisses, I just love the way you are.” Staying true to the band’s identifiable fusion of traditional acoustic guitars with electric bass, this sierreño track almost didn’t make it on Eslabon Armado’s Vibras de Noche album because it wasn’t “good enough” for the band — but they were ultimately convinced to include it by Tovar’s mom. Good thing, since it ended up being the trio’s third top 20 hit on the Hot Latin Songs chart. — GRISELDA FLORES
81. Perfume Genius, “On the Floor”
Perfume Genius’ best songs are defined by the tension between their arrangements and subject matter, a push-and-pull at the heart of the gorgeous “On The Floor.” As a bassline and guitar riffs happily bounce around his trembling voice, Mike Hadreas sings about unrequited love and wonders aloud how long these feelings of passion will last. It’s slippery pop on the surface, but a closer look reveals an impressive high-wire act. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
80. Gunna feat. Young Thug, “DOLLAZ ON MY HEAD”
Everything about “Dollaz On My Head” is easy: Gunna’s loose delivery, the rags-to-riches boasting that comprises his lyrics (“I made a whole mile off an inch”), his verse flowing into his hook and the way he passes off the baton to frequent collaborator Young Thug to prolong the vibes. The effortlessness is intoxicating — sometimes braggadocio is most effective when it comes off more as a shrug than a chest-puff. — J. Lipshutz
79. Juice WRLD & Marshmello, “Come & Go”
Included as a single from the late Chicago rapper’s collaboration-heavy, highly praised posthumous album Legends Never Die, this Marshmello team-up became Juice WRLD’s second song to reach No. 2 on the Hot 100 (tying his breakout hit “Lucid Dreams”). What begins with a pensive and melodic intro quickly evolves into a high-energy explosive beat, driving home — while simultaneously concealing — the raw emotion behind the lyrics, as he sings of wanting to hold onto the rare kind of love he’d found, and his masked collaborator provides supportive handclaps to the beat. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
78. Sam Hunt, “Hard to Forget”
Honky-tonk singer-songwriter Webb Pierce is no longer with us, but his voice reached a whole new generation in 2020, thanks to Sam Hunt’s “Hard to Forget.” Hunt, along with the crack country team of Luke Laird, Ashley Gorley, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Zach Crowell, meshed an old-timey vocal sample from Pierce’s 1953 hit “There Stands the Glass” with fat hip-hop beats and lyrics about an ex who keeps popping up. “So much for so long, out of sight, out of mind/ Girl, you lookin’ so good, it’s drivin’ me outta mine,” Hunt croons, his clever wordplay serving as the finishing touch in taking something classic and making it contemporary enough to top the Country Airplay chart in 2020. — CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
77. Bad Bunny & Jhay Cortez, “Dákiti”
This genre-bending reggaetón track made Billboard history, becoming the first Latin hit to simultaneously crown both the Billboard Global 200 and the Billboard Global Excl. U.S. charts. The futuristic and daring single, built around an edgy synth riff, works for many reasons — namely a catchy chorus and the melding of two distinctive voices — but what makes this song The Song is the track’s ultimate head-bobbing climax, which instantly turns the song into a euphoric synth-pop banger. — G.F.
76. Bob Dylan, “Murder Most Foul”
Bob Dylan can still startle us. Six decades into a career as a songwriter without peer, this March, Dylan tweeted — yes, tweeted! — the surprise release of “Murder Most Foul,” an unprecedented (even for Dylan) 17-minute-long epic. Starting with the “dark day in Dallas, November ’63” when President Kennedy was assassinated, against somber piano, drums, bowed bass and fiddle, Dylan intones “the soul of a nation been torn away” as he crafts a mesmerizing mosaic of historical and cultural images. A creative milestone, the song also topped Rock Digital Song Sales, astoundingly Dylan’s first No. 1 track on any Billboard chart as an artist. — THOM DUFFY
75. Rina Sawayama, “XS”
Whoever said “less is more” clearly doesn’t understand the importance of — as Rina Sawayama so threateningly states — “more.” The manic, bizarre “XS” snaps wildly back and forth between two tones: simple, bop-your-head-along pop melodies, and a seething guitar riff that will shock you out of that initial hypnosis. Sawayama sings as though she is trying to sell you on the idea of wealth, even though the song’s satiric lyrics stand in direct opposition to the concept — the singer’s voice shivers as she scolds blind consumerism, asking, “Where did it go awry?/ When all this time, heaven was in our eyes.” It’s not an easy task to turn a critique of capitalism into a grade-A banger, but Sawayama wants it all, and doesn’t have to choose. — STEPHEN DAW
74. Blackpink & Selena Gomez, “Ice Cream”
K-pop girl group Blackpink landed their first top 20 hit on the Hot 100 with this Gomez-assisted delight. Like the frozen concoction they’re singing about, the song is a tasty treat. The record’s squeaky-clean, bubblegummy sound belies its sexy lyrics, including one or two lines that are surprisingly R-rated for such a PG-13 vehicle. The song’s best double entendre: “You can double dip cause I know you like me.” – PAUL GREIN
73. Justin Bieber feat. Quavo, “Intentions”
A loved-up Justin Bieber has a simple list of “Intentions” in this sweet Changes highlight: to adore his wife Hailey, and to shower her with all his attention. The bubbly, R&B-infused, immaculately produced track is quintessential Wholesome Married Bieber, one in which he ditches his troubled past in favor of a more stable one, complete with a strong relationship to God and his “muse” at his side. — RANIA ANIFTOS
72. Yves Tumor, “Gospel For a New Century”
Gospel songs are essentially fervent expressions of belief in something intangible. On “Gospel For A New Century,” Sean Bowie, a.k.a. experimental alternative artist and producer Yves Tumor, proclaims his adoration for a goddess that, like the O.G. in the Bible, is unavailable and frequently cruel. (As he puts it: “’Cause when I really needed you the most, yeah, you were gone then.”) Tumor’s religion is carnal, not spiritual, and, like so many gospel songs, his testimony is repetitive. What really stirs the soul is the music — a panther creep of distorted bass, drums and brassy film-noir flourishes that alternate with Tumor’s yearning, fine-grit vocals. — F.D.
71. Shamir, “On My Own”
Splitting the difference between his alt-disco 2015 breakout effort Rachet and subsequent lo-fi indie releases — a compromise not altogether easily reached — Shamir’s “On My Own” sounds big and hooky enough to compete on pop’s highest levels, while still feeling intimate and thoughtful enough for Bandcamp audiences. Appropriately enough, the song deals with the singer-songwriter’s hard-earned independence, as he claims “I don’t mind to live all on my own… I don’t care to feel like I belong.” He could be talking about a relationship, or he could be talking about commercial expectations, but either way he sounds absolutely free. — A.U.
70. Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine”
There have been so many breakup songs in country music that it could be its own subgenre. All the more impressive, then, that Ingrid Andress was able to tread new lyrical ground with her breakout single “More Hearts Than Mine.” Everyone knows that the two people ending a relationship are hurting, but what about the collateral damage of their partner’s family and friends too? This novel (and mournful) spin on a classic country trope, set against a fittingly spare piano-and-slide-guitar-forward production, just helped Andress become the only Nashville representative to score a nod in the Big Four categories at the 2021 Grammys. — KATIE ATKINSON
69. Jonas Brothers, “What a Man Gotta Do”
The JoBros go retro on this hand-clapping stomper that celebrates full-time commitment — no half-measures here. Add in a Bo Diddley beat halfway through and just try to sit still during this irrepressibly upbeat tune, co-written by hitmeister Ryan Tedder. Even in a particularly banner year for pop, this song stood out as a blast of sparkling fizz, with a video that references Risky Business, Grease, Pulp Fiction and Say Anything and features the trio’s real life wives adding to the fun. — M. Newman
68. Arlo Parks, “Eugene”
Listening to Parks’ tender tale of unrequited love, it may take a moment to realize that it’s not “Eugene” she’s pining after, but a best friend who is dating the titular character. It’s a familiar love triangle, but the London singer-songwriter’s take is fresh, unspooling the complexities of a kinship so close that it feels like falling “half in love” over moody guitar strums. It’s not surprising that Parks began her work as a poet: Every word counts in her precise lyrics, which are riddled with personal details (“Read him Sylvia Plath, I thought that that was our thing”). But the song’s best (and perhaps most relatable) moment is when she loses her cool entirely in the second verse, murmuring: “I hate that son of a bitch.” — T.C.
67. Demi Lovato, “I Love Me”
As fans patiently await the follow-up to 2017’s Tell Me You Love Me, the pop singer has been teasing Lovatics with strong one-offs (starting with “Anyone,” which she debuted at the Grammys in January). “I Love Me” is easily Demetria’s best work of 2020, as she delivers a strong message about overcoming destructive behavior towards oneself, and why that’s so damn hard to do in the first place. The music video sees Lovato play multiple parts — the Zen side of her personality is represented just as much as the fighter is — and is full of Easter eggs referring to her past. “I Love Me” finishes with some impressive vocal runs on the outro, reminding us all that Lovato is one of the most talented vocalists working today. — G.G.
66. Lil Baby, “Emotionally Scarred”
This My Turn standout displays an unusually holistic take on the frustrations of fame and an awareness of what others might see as your failures and faults. For all its anguish, “Emotionally Scarred” is emotionally mature, too – emo rap that doesn’t hide behind anger or wallow in the maudlin. When Baby performed it at the AMAs, his backdrop read “Protect Your Mental Health.” Candor like this is the first step in doing that. — JOE LYNCH
65. Karol G, “Bichota”
Following in the vein of “Tusa” and “Ay, Dios Mio!,” Karol G has found her stride with her brand of languorous reggaetón; sensual but not overtly sexual, empowering but also feminine. “Bichota,” produced with longtime collaborator Ovy on the Drums, is more assertive with both its lyrics and hooks. From the title, which roughly translates to “Boss” and is often used as street slang referring to men, “Bichota” is less about “empowerment” in the traditional sense, than self-confidence and taking control. “I feel like a bichota, they all want to break me but don’t know how,” she purrs in the opening, immediately catchy refrain. Set to sparse keyboards, “Bichota” is successful by virtue of its simplicity. At a time when the word “empowerment” has been bandied around to support every video that features sexualized images of women, here’s one that celebrates body image and attitude without bowing to masculine needs or approval. — L.C.
64. The Japanese House feat. Bon Iver, “Dionne”
It didn’t get as much attention as Bon Iver’s other collab this year with an acclaimed female singer-songwriter, but Japanese House’s “Dionne” was even more affecting in its crystalline beauty and devastating in its lyrical implications than that Hot 100 top 10 hit. “Wishin’ that someone would film the way I’m lookin’ at you right now/ I wanna watch it back and then kill myself,” the artist originally known as Amber Bain moans with matter-of-fact desperation, before her duet partner comes in with the semi-tough love: “Pay them no mind/ You’re alone with this one.” When Dionne Warwick finds out about this one (yes, it’s actually named after her), boy is that gonna be a Twitter moment. — A.U.
63. Brockhampton, “Sugar”
Four years after their debut album, Brockhampton notched their first Hot 100 entry with Ginger‘s “Sugar,” a No. 63 hit this January, thanks in part to a viral dance challenge that exploded on TikTok. But the song’s success on the app is no surprise — its euphoric harmonies, swoon-worthy lyrics and flawless blend of hip-hop and alternative R&B check off all the boxes for a Gen-Z smash. Not to mention that NSFW, alien-infested video that created quite a buzz, and provided a stark contrast to the track’s soothing nature. — R.A.
62. Conan Gray, “Heather”
It’s rare that a song becomes a near-universally understood colloquialism within months of its release. But “Heather,” the sleeper hit off of Conan Gray’s revelatory debut Kid Krow, accomplished just that — shortly before becoming his very first Hot 100 entry, the song’s title became a shorthand on TikTok for a beautiful girl that one is jealous of. It’s understandable why; the gorgeous ballad recreates a vivid memory of hating someone you’d otherwise like just fine because your crush is crushing on them, a self-defeating feeling just about everyone can understand. — S.D.
61. Doja Cat, “Boss Bitch”
A buckle-up-and-enjoy-the-ride sonic rollercoaster, Doja Cat’s “Boss Bitch” is a future house banger masquerading as a rap rager, with the L.A.-based artist’s elastic delivery evoking Nicki Minaj’s classic verse on Kanye’s “Monster.” Constructed heavily from kick drum and cowbell, “Boss Bitch” is a testament to simply being a bitch, a boss and shining like gloss. Unlike her No. 1 smash “Say So,” the track wasn’t a major chart hit — peaking at No. 100 on the Hot 100 in April — but nonetheless remains a key piece of Doja Cat’s breakout year. — K.B.
60. Orville Peck, “Summertime”
A widescreen old Hollywood Western romance pared down to a three-minute emotional wallop, “Summertime” just might be mysterious country & western troubadour Orville Peck’s finest moment yet. One thing is for sure: With his rich, romantic baritone and the wistful lyrics, Peck brings true grit to this sumptuous Technicolor love story. — J. Lynch
59. Rosalía, “Dolerme”
Rosalía’s “Dolerme” was an outlier in every sense of the word: an acoustic, guitar-based pop track with rock spirit — albeit with electronic and flamenco brush strokes — it sounded unlike anything Rosalía had done before. This was another Rosalía, perhaps a more urgent one than the one we usually hear in her big commercial hits. But this cowrite with Frank Dukes, Matthew Tavares and longtime collaborator El Guincho underscored the Spanish star’s versatility, while showcasing her flamenco-tinged, luminous vocals in a different, yet equally impressive light. — L.C.
58. Machine Gun Kelly feat. Halsey, “Forget Me Too”
If a song could attend high school, this Machine Gun Kelly and Halsey collab surely was a student in the early 2000s. A throwback to the pop-punk heights of those times, “Forget Me Too” recreates the angry and lovelorn sounds of teenage angst that might have been played out 20 years ago, but feels exciting and new now. MGK’s melodramatic foray into a new genre with Tickets to My Downfall proved fruitful, and the Halsey addition on “Forget” has us hoping we get more emo rock on her next album too. — DENISE WARNER
57. Haim, “The Steps”
For their third album Women In Music Part III, Haim struts out all of its most beloved influences — from Laurel Canyon folk to ‘90s R&B. But for single “The Steps,” the three sisters from Los Angeles harken back to their own early days of playing unabashedly enthusiastic rock jams. Released alongside a Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video featuring the aggrieved siblings defacing their home and biting off the head of some lipstick, “The Steps” vents about being fed up in a relationship and standing up for yourself, while being backed by a stunning Danielle Haim guitar solo. — TAYLOR MIMS
56. Shawn Mendes, “Wonder”
The drums! The crescendo! The choir! Pop fans crave new eras from their favorite artists, and that’s what Shawn Mendes embarks on with this epic track, as “Wonder” ushered in an album of the same name, a Netflix documentary and a virtual tour. Mendes sings about love here, as he’s known to do, but in a way that’s more introspective (“I wonder if I’m being real/ Do I speak my truth or do I filter how I feel?”), revisiting the vulnerability of his Grammy-nominated “In My Blood.” With top 20 Hot 100 debuts from both “Wonder” and its Justin Bieber duet follow-up “Monster,” fans should look forward to seeing and hearing much more of Shawn Mendes in 2021. — B.K.
55. Pop Smoke feat. Lil Baby & DaBaby, “For the Night”
Prior to the release of his posthumous debut album, Pop Smoke wasn’t exactly known for his slow-burning, laid-back cuts. But the creeping “For The Night” helped prove his versatility, as he held court between the twin hurricanes that are all-stars Lil Baby and DaBaby, each of whom delivers succinct displays of just what make them such singular characters in the current hip-hop scene. In the canon of great rap songs anchored by melancholy flute melodies, this one can sit comfortably alongside Future’s “Mask Off” and Drake’s “Portland.” — D.R.
54. The Weeknd, “In Your Eyes”
The sleek “In Your Eyes” demonstrates Michael Jackson’s deep influence on a generation of pop and R&B artists, and this longtime acolyte in particular. With a sparkling synth hook and a creamy, melodic chorus, “In Your Eyes” would have fit right in on Off the Wall — with the sax solo (by Wojtek Goral on the original recording and by Kenny G on a remix) adding to the ‘80s throwback vibe. The Grammys may have snubbed The Weeknd, but “In Your Eyes” shows why he was one of the year’s top artists. — P.G.
53. Ava Max, “Kings & Queens”
At face value, Ava Max’s “Kings & Queens” is a synth-powered toast to female independence, complete with a splashy electric guitar solo and garishly cinematic video. But following its release, the empowering track and its theatrical visual took on a second life, becoming an unofficial anthem of the parade-free 2020 Pride season and reminding all of the kings and queens fighting isolation in lockdown that — even with celebrations around the world being cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic — “baby, you’re not dancing on your own.” — G.R.
52. Phoebe Bridgers, “Kyoto”
This heartbreaking rocker, which acclaimed singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has said is based on her complicated relationship with her father, has such cinematic lyrics that it could be adapted into a dreamily melancholy Sofia Coppola movie. Over a complex arrangement of 12-string guitar, horns, autoharp and Mellotron, she masterfully unravels her tangled feelings about Dad: anger and resignation (“I’m gonna kill you / If you don’t beat me to it”) mixed with memories of a happier past, and ambivalence over the wanderlust she inherited from him. The lyrics are a blend of cutting and wistful, but when the music rises and Bridgers’ voice soars, the song leaves its emotional baggage behind. “I don’t forgive you/ But please don’t hold me to it,” offers some hope for reconciliation in a song that recalls Philip Larkin’s classic line of poetry: “They f–k you up, your mum and dad.” — F.D.
51. Ariana Grande, “pov”
In her Positions album closer, Ariana Grande begins to smash the walls she built up throughout Sweetener and Thank U, Next, revealing her most beautifully defenseless side yet. “pov” paints a heartwarming picture of a person who has gone through deep emotional distress, and while she still doesn’t fully believe in herself and her ability to be loved, she really, really wants to. The sentiment quickly struck a chord on TikTok, with users building up their own self-esteem with selfies soundtracked by the “for all of my pretty, for all of my ugly too” juxtaposition in the heartwarming chorus. — R.A.
50. Twenty One Pilots, “Level of Concern”
While everyone else was freaking out about lockdown, Twenty One Pilots did something productive with their quaranxiety. The duo served up this dance-y lockdown banger in early April, along with a socially distanced video, in which they build the distanced track by mailing a zip drive back and forth between their adjacent homes. They laid their Ohio lite funk in your ears with the indelible opening lines, “Panic on the brain, world has gone insane/ Things are starting to get heavy,” before asking the super important question, “Would you be my little quarantine?” It’s got a sick beat and you can hunker down to it. — GIL KAUFMAN
49. Dan + Shay, “I Should Probably Go to Bed”
First comes the grand piano, then Shay Mooney’s incomparable voice, followed by Dan Smyers’ harmonies and strings, as the country duo builds layer upon gorgeous layer on this exquisite ballad. In under three minutes, the duo deliver a near-perfect ode to heartbreak that pays homage to the sumptuous orchestral pop created by the Beach Boys and Electric Light Orchestra. Between Smyers’ inspired arrangement and Mooney’s vocals dropping from a sky-high falsetto to full-throated singing without missing a beat, Dan + Shay reach a new musical high. — M. Newman
48. Troye Sivan, “Easy”
With pillowy synths providing a bed for Troye Sivan’s alluring, echoed crooning (not to mention the most adorable ‘WOO!’ of 2020), “Easy” tracks like the theme song for an unabashedly queer ’80s teen rom-com that should have been. Thankfully, this sweetly bewitching highlight from Sivan’s In a Dream EP gives us a glimpse into a world where the poetry of this nascent romance (“Would you look at the space just next to your feet?/ The wood is warping, the lines distorting”) exists freely and comfortably. — J. Lynch
47. SAINt JHN, “Roses” (Imanbek Remix)
The ominous trap-tinged R&B single from 2016 received a lively remix by 19-year-old Kazakh producer Imanbek in 2019 that blossomed all over TikTok this year. The high-pitched, bass-bumping edition makes SAINt JHN’s indecipherable lyrics even more hypnotizing, while the dizzying array of viral dance challenges gave the Guyanese-American rapper his roses in the form of a No. 1 hit in several countries — as well as on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart. — H.M.
46. Tame Impala, “Breathe Deeper”
Released as a single concurrently with its Feb. 14 parent album, The Slow Rush, “Breathe Deeper” sees Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker making good on his promise to “fuckin’ ramp it up” rather than stray away from sonic experimentation. Loosely influenced by his first time taking ecstasy, the track’s psychedelic disco groove and in-the-moment lyrics (“Let those colors run/ And she said, ‘Now, you’re having fun’”) offers a similar melting wave of euphoria to the one Parker may have experienced during the song’s inspiration. — JOSH GLICKSMAN
45. Drake feat. Lil Durk, “Laugh Now Cry Later”
We’ve known that Drake has been in on the joke for a while now, but if you didn’t, the easily meme-able music video for “Laugh Now Cry Later” will clue you in… baby. There is an effortlessness to Drake when he’s at his best that this single showcases well, which the production matches — everyone on this song knows what they’re doing and they do it simply and do it well. Also, very much here for Lil Durk getting his long-overdue mainstream look, even if just for a short cameo. — DAN RYS
44. The 1975, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”
The 1975 are likely too experimental (and ambitious) to ever release an album of wall-to-wall top 40 confections, but they certainly know how to lock in their pop brilliance for at least one song per set. The irresistible “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know),” which features backing vocals from FKA Twigs, could have conceivably soundtracked the climax of a John Hughes movie in the ‘80s — if its lyrics weren’t about cybersex, of course. — J. Lipshutz
43. Mac Miller, “Good News”
When Mac Miller died of an accidental overdose in 2018, the Pittsburgh rapper-singer seemed to be at a new peak of creativity. That makes his posthumous album Circles both marvelous and painful to listen to — especially “Good News,” a melancholy internal monologue about his struggles with depression, and the pressure to “get better” when it’s entirely possible that no such reality exists. Singing in a sleepy drawl over a sparse, bluesy melody, Miller is alternately hopeful and weary: “There ain’t a better time than today/ But maybe I’ll lay down for a little, yeah.” A gentle reminder to check in on the ones we love — and accept when the answer isn’t so sunny — it’s hard to think of the song as anything less than a gift. — T.C.
42. Bad Bunny, Dua Lipa, J Balvin & Tainy, “Un Dia (One Day)”
Bad Bunny, J Balvin and Tainy have already proven to be an effective formula — so what do you get when you add pop darling Dua Lipa to the mix? A nostalgic, dreamy track that laces seductive pop melodies with dancehall and reggaetón flair. Reflecting love and heartbreak, the track finds the quartet longing to reconnect with an ex: “One day you’ll love me again/ One day you’ll love me for sure.” Relatable? Oh yeah. The Spanglish bop topped the Hot Latin Songs chart in August, staying at No. 1 for five weeks. — L.C.
41. Justin Bieber feat. Chance the Rapper, “Holy”
Justin Bieber didn’t have to give us more music this year. After all, by September he had already released his fifth No. 1 album, Changes, casually dropped a No. 1 quarantine collab with Ariana Grande and returned to the Saturday Night Live stage for the first time in seven years. But instead of coasting through the rest of 2020 on those laurels, the Bieb kickstarted an entirely new era with “Holy,” a gospel-tinged love song that translates his romance with wife Hailey Bieber into a full-blown spiritual experience. With an endearingly corny guest verse by Chance the Rapper (“Life is short with temper, like Joe Pesci,” anyone?) and a cinematic music video featuring Ryan Destiny and Wilmer Valderrama, the pop devotional proved to be exactly the feel-good balm Beliebers needed to ease their woes as the pandemic marched on through the fall. — G.R.
40. beabadoobee, “Care”
“It’s been a while since I talked about it” is an opening line that’s brilliant for its lean-in effect, hooking listeners instantly through a desire to know about whatever has been pushed down. Such clever narration is exactly what helped 20-year-old Beatrice Laus breakthrough this year, paired with her blissful blend of fuzzy ’90s alt-rock and glistening 2000s pop. As both the lead song and standout on beabadoobee’s debut album Fake It Flowers, “Care” perfectly sets the tone for the 11 tenderly performed yet biting tracks that follow. — L.H.
39. Taylor Swift, “The Last Great American Dynasty”
The Easter Egg queen flipped the script on this story-inside-a-story song from surprise quarantine album, folklore, turning her gaze outward to tell the tale of “a misfit widow getting gleeful revenge” on the town that kicked her to the curb. The spare, folky tale of IRL uber-WASP Rebekah Harkness — previous owner of the luxe Rhode Island mansion that Swift now calls home — was the perfect 3:51 escape into a Great Gatsby-esque fantasy world, at a time when our own homes often felt like gilded prisons. — G.K.
38. Beyoncé, “Black Parade”
Amidst the BLM protests, Beyoncé posted a video in which she demanded justice for George Floyd, published an open letter to the Kentucky Attorney General calling for the arrest of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, and then dropped “Black Parade.” It wasn’t a coincidence that the song arrived on June 19 — the national holiday Juneteenth commemorating the 1865 order to free slaves in Beyoncé’s home state of Texas. A swirl of trap beats, flutes and brass, the production evokes the song’s titular procession, as Bey delivers an ode to the beauty and strength of Black culture. “Motherland drip on me,” she requests, amidst lyrics about trading waves for dreads and making a picket sign out of your picket fence. In a moment of the most severe racial conflict many of us have seen in our lifetimes, “Parade” dually uplifted proponents of social justice and reminded us all what we’re fighting for. — K.B.
37. Grimes, “Delete Forever”
A sonic outlier on an already eclectic album, “Delete Forever” finds Grimes going Tracy Chapman with some banjo flair and a few gently elegiac horns at the end. It’s a downbeat, deeply felt meditation on creative souls racked by mental health issues leaving the world far too soon. Miss Anthropocene mostly finds Grimes purposely playing the bad guy, but here, we get a glimpse into the pain that has hardened the villain’s heart. — J. Lynch
36. Future feat. Drake, “Life Is Good”
It only took ten days into 2020 for Future and Drake to run amuck on the rap game. Their plush lifestyles, steely bravado, and disregard for the IRS fuels this electric collaboration. After Drake’s opening salvo, a swift beat-switch allows Future to truck through his street experiences (“I done been down bad in them trenches”). “Life Is Good” scored Future his highest position yet on the Hot 100 at No. 2, and racked up a whopping 1.2 billion plays for the song’s occupational role-playing visual on YouTube. — C.L.
35. Sam Smith, “Diamonds”
Sam Smith shines bright like a diamond in their striking hit from 2020’s Love Goes, And like the toughest of gemstones, Smith’s voice cuts through to the core. Despite the song’s bitter message, the pulsing beat still makes you long for the sweaty dance floors of bygone days. “Diamonds” — a kiss off to a lost lover — feels like a natural sequel to Smith’s 2012 Disclosure pairing “Latch,” which recalls the heat of fresh attraction. “Latch” introduced Smith, but “Diamonds” cements their status in the new decade. — D.W.
34. Maluma & The Weeknd, “Hawái” (Remix)
Maluma’s plaintive lyrics on “Hawái,” about a girl he’s lost to another man, gain added urgency when it’s revealed to be a song of love for the time of social media (“Vacation in Hawái, congratulations; really nice what you post on Instagram so I see it”), After all, haven’t we all been there? It sounds facile, but “Hawái” is not only catchy but poignant, with wistful verses that already feel like a distant memory. A juggernaut in its original version (topping Billboard’s first-ever Global Excl. U.S. chart) “Hawái” gained new traction when The Weeknd jumped on the track, singing that opening verse in English and then the chorus in Spanish, his smooth vocals meshing perfectly with Maluma’s; two huge pop stars in a single track for double the appeal. It was added validation for a song that managed to capture the universal feelings of loss and spite, and mesh them with the fleeting yet permanent trappings of a digital era. — L.C.
33. Billie Eilish, “My Future”
Eilish and brother/creative partner Finneas made the bold decision to let this song unfold as a spare, jazzy ballad for a full 1:42 before the tempo picks up with a light disco shuffle. Besides being one of the year’s most gorgeous ballads, this ode from Eilish to her future self makes an important point about the need for self-love: “I’m supposed to be unhappy without someone/But aren’t I someone?” That just may be the year’s most profound lyric. — P.G.
32. Chris Stapleton, “Starting Over”
In August, Chris Stapleton wiped his social media clean and posted a snippet of his first single since 2018. That eventually turned into the titular track from his fourth studio album Starting Over, which particularly hits home in 2020 when the entire world has had to realign aspects of their lives due to the global pandemic. With his deep, austere voice laid over sympathetic acoustic strumming, Stapleton envisions starting over with no plan, just a little luck and the woman he loves. — T.M.
31. Lady Gaga, “Stupid Love”
And she’s back! After three consecutive stripped-down albums (by Gaga’s standards, anyway), Chromatica‘s lead single “Stupid Love” signaled Lady Gaga’s return to her disco-pop roots. Though we had nowhere to go this year, the pop star’s comeback was the toe-tapping, high-energy track that soundtracked our at-home workouts, our midday mental health walks — even our dances, for some! Regardless, the single was a boost of good vibes this year, and we’re not sorry for loving her “Stupid Love.” — MIA NAZARENO
30. Selena Gomez, “Rare”
Selena Gomez’s third studio album of the same name is a shimmering sea of exacting pop perfection, but its title track manages to be a Hope Diamond among other jewels. Gomez sings unabashedly about self-love over twinkling production, all while reminding potential objects of her affection that she should be appreciated like the gem she is: “I don’t have it all/ I’m not claiming to/ But I know that I’m special.” — G.G.
29. Harry Styles, “Golden”
Harry Styles’ Fine Line album opener serves as a sort of theme song to the rest of his Grammy-nominated sophomore project. “Golden” is an ethereal ode to falling helplessly in love despite a very real risk of heartbreak, with lyrics like “I know that you’re scared ’cause hearts get broken” overcome by the grand sentiment, “Loving you’s the antidote.” Styles’ seemingly effortless ability to touch on the range of human relationships is what makes “Golden” a staple in 2020. The stylish, Italy-set music video doesn’t hurt, either. — R.A.
28. Dua Lipa, “Physical”
In a year ruled by ’80s homages, no one (fine, almost no one) threw it back more effectively than Dua Lipa. Her high-octane ode to carnal perspiration achieved a fresh take on a vintage sound, delivering on the timewarp promise of the album from whence it came, Future Nostalgia. Inspired by Flashdance and (of course) Olivia Newton John, “Physical” fueled many of the dance parties for one that kept us sane during a bonkers moment in history — one during which Lipa came into her own as a powerhouse pop star. — K.B.
27. Surfaces, “Sunday Best”
The boat-shoe pop-soul duo’s slow-burn hit came out in early 2019, but didn’t smash through until TikTok users blew it up early this year. The light and airy sunshine anthem, with the indelibly perky hook “feeling good, like I should” was the perfect head-bobbing distraction from, well, everything else. Like a mouthful of strawberry cotton candy, the flavor didn’t last long, but while it lingered in your ears it sure made things a lot more fun for three minutes. — G.K.
26. Jack Harlow, “Whats Poppin”
Jack Harlow became the answer to his breakout hit’s titular question this spring, as the tiptoeing bounce and tight one-bar-at-a-time flow of the Jetsonmade-produced “Whats Poppin” slowly grew to ubiquity. The All-Star remix its runaway success eventually attracted certainly helped there — though the presence of alleged Megan Thee Stallion shooter Tory Lanez makes it a somewhat uncomfortable listen when not truncated by hip-hop radio — but Harlow showed on the original that he was more than capable of leading as well as assisting, equal parts John Stockton and Gilbert Arenas. — A.U.
25. Gabby Barrett, “I Hope”
There’s something so diabolical about the narrative buildup of “I Hope,” the way Gabby Barrett has you believing that she wants the best for her ex and wishing that he’ll end up with his great love. But don’t be fooled: We learn in the bulldozer of a chorus that she just wants him to find his happily-ever-after so it’s that much more heart-rending when that ever-after isn’t so happy after all… just like when he was unfaithful to her. The country newcomer’s imposing debut single — which was buoyed on radio by a Top 40-approved Charlie Puth remix — has drawn a lot of comparisons to Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” but slashing a few tires feels like mere child’s play compared to the lasting emotional damage Barrett hopes to inflict. — K.A.
24. Chloe x Halle, “Do It”
If you’re protégées of Beyoncé, then you better come correct with your first big pop hit. After winning fans over with their charming covers, Chloe x Halle graduated into the big leagues when they released “Do It” in May. Glazed with sweet harmonies, “Do It” is R&B class personified. Not only do Chloe x Halle match each other’s fly on this jazzy party starter, but when aligned with some of music’s brightest females (Doja Cat, City Girls, and Mulatto) on the song’s remix, they raise the temperature even higher — helping “Do It” reach a No. 63 peak on the Hot 100, the duo’s first-ever entry on the chart. — C.L.
23. Blackpink, “How You Like That”
Not since Beyoncé’s boing-boing “Formation” beat has a top 40 hit been engineered for such gravity-defying bounce. Once they blast off with that taunting school-yard hook, K-pop’s fiercest foursome hardly bother with coming back down to Earth. Instead, they barrel right along into Lisa’s spunky rap verse, before ending with that all-out fireworks show of a coda — the most thrilling 30 seconds of pop all year. — N.F.
22. Christine & the Queens, “People, I’ve Been Sad”
“People, I’ve Been Sad,” the first taste of Christine and the Queens’ magnifique surprise EP La Vita Nuova, finds the French singer-songwriter intoning, without mincing words, about what it’s like to fall apart: “If you fall apart, then I’m falling behind you/ You know the feeling).” On the chorus to the melancholy banger, Chris’ voice starts and halts like a string being plucked, creating a mournful effect — and oh yes, do we know the feeling. — G.G.
21. Ariana Grande, “Positions”
This slinky R&B jam arrived as the lead single off Ariana Grande’s sixth album of the same name and immediately aimed to prove she’s learned and grown from her past with the opening line: “I just hope I don’t repeat history.” Many were quick to dismiss Positions for its more expected R&B production and lack of obvious pop megahits, but this track walks that line as she confidently sings about wanting to go “from the kitchen to the bedroom,” owning that women are in fact multidimensional. Bolstered by a music video that gifted us President Grande weeks before this year’s election, “Positions” will forever be remembered for making a statement and providing some levity during a heated moment — one of many in 2020. — L.H.
20. Machine Gun Kelly, “Bloody Valentine”
The opening scene in the music video for “bloody valentine” pays homage to Machine Gun Kelly’s June 2019 platinum single “I Think I’m Okay,” which, in a July Teen Vogue video, he says “started out this whole punk-pop wave for me and this generation.” Since its release, MGK has emerged as a face of the resurging movement, thanks in no small part to this lead single from his Billboard 200-topping Tickets to My Downfall album. The explosive hit’s rollicking chorus is a contender for catchiest of the year, while its lyricism delves into moments of vulnerability that never slow the track’s momentum (“I’m overstimulated and I’m sad/I don’t expect you to understand”), and its Travis Barker production begs for head-banging singalongs. Time to tune up the air guitar. — J.G.
When the Chicks returned this year with their first new album since 2006, they wasted no time showing off the teeth of their new era: “Gaslighter” is a scum-seeking missile aimed at the emotionally manipulative, with Jack Antonoff providing the alt-pop blueprint and Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire reminding us why their songwriting and harmonies made them a Nashville force of nature at the turn of the century. — J. Lipshutz
18. Bad Bunny, “Yo Perreo Sola”
A standout track on Bunny’s first of three albums in 2020, YHLQMDLG, “Yo Perreo Sola” (I Twerk Alone) is the ultimate quarantine anthem for its embrace of twerking by yourself and being single as a way of life. “If she needs you, she’ll call you, but right now she’s on her own,” the artist born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio sings. The simple female empowerment song became a hit in large part because of its catchy chorus, delivered via Nesi’s distinctive, fresh vocals, which captivate you instantly and will have you reciting after her “Yo Perreo Sola” hook over and over again. — G.F.
17. BENEE feat. Gus Dapperton, “Supalonely”
There is something comforting in upbeat songs about sadness that come packaged with a retro feel and a singalong hook, and in that respect “Supalonely” ticks all the boxes. The fact that it came seemingly out of nowhere (well, okay, TikTok) with the perfect subject matter for a global pandemic — basically, struggling to get your emotions under control while being all alone and feeling down about yourself — also made it an apt surprise hit for the year. — D.R.
16. Miley Cyrus, “Midnight Sky”
Miley Cyrus has experimented with a lot of sounds over her nearly 15-year career, but there’s something about the dark ’80s pop vibe of her Plastic Hearts era that instantly fit like a glove. With her confessional-yet-catchy lyrics (including the Springsteen shoutout “I was born to run, I don’t belong to anyone”) and raspy vocals, “Midnight Sky” was a standout single even before Stevie Nicks hopped aboard for a flawless remix — proving that “Sky” was secretly a puzzle piece waiting to be joined with enduring 1981 classic-rock standard “Edge of Seventeen” all along. — K.A.
15. Lil Baby, “The Bigger Picture”
With “The Bigger Picture,” Lil Baby articulated the mid-year state of crisis in the U.S. in a way that top 40 radio audiences likely didn’t expect from the “Drip Too Hard” rapper. Audio clips of news reports and crowds chanting “I can’t breathe” in honor of George Floyd, whose death sparked a series of protests across the country, set up the powerful track. Lil Baby goes on to detail his personal experiences with the criminal justice system, what it means to grow up as a black person in this country, and overall how we can begin to move forward as a society by looking at the bigger picture (“It’s bigger than black and white/ It’s a problem with the whole way of life”). What makes the song so exceptional is its timing: The song came out on June 12 amid still-daily protests following George Floyd’s May 25 death — a mere 18-day separation between the two events, when it might’ve taken 18 months for pop stars to respond to major world events in the past. While Lil Baby had already established his prominence as a hitmaker, “The Bigger Picture” took him to the next level both as a star and an artist. — B.K.
14. Billie Eilish, “Therefore I Am”
Pop music is littered with prodigies, but good luck finding one who, at 18, co-wrote and recorded a song as nuanced and self-assured as “Therefore I Am.” The song’s synth fills sound like circus music, but Eilish’s derisive laughter and lyrics leave no doubt that she’s impervious to the three-ring maelstrom that surrounds her. “Get my pretty name out of your mouth,” she sings for the haters, and, perhaps, misguided stans as well. “Don’t talk ’bout me like how you might know how I feel.” Eilish’s narrative is hers alone to determine, and, judging from this chart-climbing hit — No. 2 on the Hot 100 and her record-setting sixth top 10 single on Alternative Airplay — that narrative will grow more compelling in the years to come. — F.D.
13. Roddy Ricch, “The Box”
Three singles from Roddy Ricch’s December 2019 debut studio album, Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial, came out before “The Box” officially arrived Jan. 10 of this year — but by then, it didn’t matter: “The Box” was already the single, especially on TikTok. Written by Ricch and producer Samuel “30Roc” Gloade, the ominous, minor-key song opens with a dramatic rush of strings before introducing the squeaky, bed-spring-like sound that refused to leave your brain all year: “ee er.” But “The Box” had more to give than just memes, thanks to the now-22-year-old Compton native’s nimble flow, allowing him to switch from punching out words (“Pour up the whole damn seal”) to finessing them in a sing-song voice (“I’ma get lazy”) all in the same line. Fueled by its virality and its thumping 808s, the track went to No. 1 on the Jan. 18 chart, where it remained for 11 weeks — even fending off some big-name challengers in the process. — C.W.
12. Maren Morris, “The Bones”
Maren Morris’ smash “The Bones” — which spent 19 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart and peaked at No. 12 on the Hot 100 — combines her beautiful countrified mezzo-soprano and staccato guitar riffs with almost too-prescient lyrics of withstanding a storm as long as your foundation is strong. Debuting in the first half of 2019, the song’s slow burn appeal led to it not peaking on the Hot 100 until April of 2020 — and finishing in the top 10 on the chart’s year-end roundup for 2020. Morris scored rare success for a country artist on pop radio, because when the bones are good, the rest don’t matter. — D.W.
11. Taylor Swift, “Cardigan”
Folklore was a gift Taylor Swift fans never saw coming. Eschewing her penchant for careful plotting and months-long rollouts, the superstar dropped the entire album — which she’d created in isolation during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic — at the stroke of midnight on July 24. And thanks to its wistful recollection of romantic moments stolen on Manhattan’s High Line, or the way a first love can fit like the perfect piece of clothing you’d all but forgotten, the modern-day folk tale of “Cardigan” was a lead single unlike anything Swift had released before. Though fans didn’t know it at the time, the misty-eyed piano ballad also served as the centerpiece of the fictional “Teenage Love Triangle” at the heart of the album, transposing the legend of Peter Pan and Wendy into the story of a girl named Betty and a boy named James, giving Swift her sixth career Hot 100 No. 1 hit, and wrapping fans in the cozy embrace of a favorite sweater they didn’t even know they needed. — G.R.
10. Dua Lipa, “Break My Heart”
When Dua Lipa took the leap as one of the first pop stars to release an album amid the ongoing pandemic this year, it became clear why: her anticipated second album, Future Nostalgia, had the hits to sustain us all though an incredibly uncertain time. Preceded by “Don’t Start Now” and “Physical,” “Break My Heart” found unexpected relevance thanks to its “I should have stayed at home” lyric that fueled internet interest and provided some much-needed laughs for her crystal ball prediction. More than its timeliness, though, Lipa is most vulnerable underneath the glossy pop production and bouncy bassline as she questions if she’s falling for someone who will ultimately hurt her — but goes for it anyway. And while the way in which Lipa flirts with the concept of love is echoed throughout its parent album, it’s that uncertainty that makes this hit so strong. — L.H.
9. DaBaby feat. Roddy Ricch, “Rockstar”
After a successful rookie campaign in 2019, DaBaby avoided the sophomore slump with his seven-week Hot 100 chart-topper “Rockstar.” The guitar-laden single finds the Charlotte MC test-driving a new flow alongside the melodic wunderkind Roddy Ricch. Embracing his superstar status, DaBaby detonates his detractors with punchy barbs while addressing his past trauma and vowing to protect his daughter from any harm (“And I’ll kill another n—a too/ ‘Fore I let another n—a do somethin’ to you”). Even after landing his first Hot 100 No. 1, Baby kept the momentum going when he unleashed the song’s “Black Lives Matter (Remix).” With an already timely baked-in protest sentiment on the song’s hook (“F–k a cop car), Baby continues where he left off and skewers the police force for their numerous letdowns. — C.L.
8. 24kGoldn feat. iann dior, “Mood”
In a year where multiple concurrent hits by established stars took up a truly suffocating amount of real estate on pop and rap radio and streaming services, what a joy it was every time you heard the opening chords of “Mood” blasting from your FM dial or Spotify playlist. The song’s energy just felt impossibly fresh, a visceral banger that blended genres (making it to alternative radio as well as hip-hop and top 40) and introduced a couple Gen Z newbies to the top of the charts in 24kGoldn and iann dior. The hooks were sticky and plentiful, the lyrics were transportively teenage without feeling pandering or weird, and the whole thing was in and out in a tight 2:21. Kinda ironic that the 2020 hit that asked, “Why you always in a mood?” was the one omnipresent hit that was pretty much guaranteed to improve yours. — A.U.
7. BTS, “Dynamite”
The K-pop boy band’s first-ever English-language single made their cross-cultural career blow up in ways it hadn’t before, earning BTS their first No. 1 hit on the Hot 100, as well as their first Grammy nomination, for best pop duo/group performance. “Dynamite” packs in high-energy snaps, synths, bass and horns while catching the spark of 2020’s disco overload (“with a little funk and soul”) and exploding with cultural references, from The Rolling Stones to LeBron James. It all adds up to an irresistible single that should soon become a pop culture staple in its own right. — H.M.
6. Doja Cat, “Say So”
The disco-pop revival of 2020 was led in part by Doja Cat’s funky smash hit, thanks to an upbeat dance hook that doesn’t beat around the bush, an attention-grabbing rap verse and a viral TikTok dance that even made its way into the official music video. Her airy coos-turned-breathless bars glide over the groovy 808s-heavy bassline, reminiscent of Nile Rodgers’ guitar chops on Chic’s “Good Times,” for the effortless dance floor-filler. “Say So” soared even higher when Nicki Minaj hopped on the remix — which earned both hybrid rappers their career-first No. 1s on the Hot 100 — and the song was rewarded with two Grammy nominations for record of the year and best pop solo performance. — H.M.
5. Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion, “WAP”
A lot has been said about Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s culture-shaking collab “WAP” – and most of those words wasted on tired nonsense about explicit sex talk ruining America (“Won’t somebody please think of the children!” etc.). But controversy and titillation alone do not a smash hit make: “WAP” slid into the top spot of the Hot 100 with ease and stayed there for four nonconsecutive weeks because it’s just a classic collaborative hip-hop banger, with two heavyweights at the top of their game dropping bars with brevity, bravery and attitude. With rock-solid production and forceful delivery from both, Cardi and Megan could be rapping about woodland creatures (Wet Ass Platypuses?) and still deliver a defining anthem for a year that sorely needed some brash, unabashed NSFW fun. — J. Lynch
4. Harry Styles, “Adore You”
Harry Styles’ “Adore You” is one of those perfect pop gems that only arrives so often, and has to be played on repeat until someone in the household complains. The flexible beat is consistent throughout, only falling into the background as Styles launches into falsetto chorus and proudly proclaims his adoration. In the single, Styles has zero chill — he doesn’t need any. He’s extremely affectionate without becoming sappy and piles praise on his lover with reckless abandon as he promises to walk through fire just for the opportunity to adore them. While Harry Styles unknowingly dropped this balm to the 2020 blues in late 2019, “Adore You” spent 17 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 before peaking in the top 10 in mid-April. It captures the kind of jubilance that was in short supply in the early days of the pandemic and keeps the feeling going, like it’s the only thing it’ll ever do. — T.M.
3. Megan Thee Stallion feat. Beyoncé, “Savage” (Remix)
“Savage” was a smash even before Megan Thee Stallion recruited hip-hop royalty for a remix. The song, which became a national obsession thanks to a raunchy dance challenge on TikTok, featured Meg at her most confident, clever and magnetic, layering sharp rhymes about her body, finances and game over a club-ready hook. The song bottled confidence and was as aspirational as it was relatable, seemingly gifted to Meg’s fans with the message: Play this whenever you need it.
The message reached fellow Houston native Beyoncé too, and it’s hard to recall the last time we heard her have this much fun: Here’s Queen Bey giving a clever shout-out to TikTok, singling out each of her butt-cheeks and shouting-out her mom, while her line about jumping to put jeans on earns an instant chef’s kiss from the female population. But the co-sign is meaningful in deeper ways, too: To see two Black female performers with the same hometown (one an established star, the other rapidly rising) collaborate together on a self-loving song about being “that bitch,” and then watch it top the Hot 100, is a resonant celebration of Black womanhood — and the power of owning your classy, bougie, ratchet, sassy, moody, nasty self. — T.C.
2. The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights”
The numbers speak for themselves, don’t they? In addition to “Blinding Lights” ending up the No. 1 Hot 100 song of the year, the longstanding megahit has enjoyed record-setting stays in the chart’s top 5 and top 10 regions, as well as atop Billboard’s all-format Radio Songs airplay chart and Hot R&B Songs. It’s an exemplary case of how The Weeknd has grown from mixtape recluse with a core fan base to Super Bowl headliner in the past decade.
From its opening moments, the track oozes with ‘80s-inspired glitz, guided by an entrancing production loop that feels fresh yet warmly familiar even upon first listen — and certainly so after playing the track back over and over again. Few other synth pop tracks in the 21st century have provided such an ethereal feeling of sheer invincibility at its peak — a sudden urge that, much like he does in the song’s music video, you need to start running, dancing, or doing both.
It’s unfortunate that part of this song’s legacy will be tied to its stunning snub — along with the rest of The Weeknd’s 2020 output — at the upcoming Grammys, which serves as the latest chapter in the award show’s iffy history with adequate representation for artists of color. Still, years from now, it’ll ultimately be better remembered for its impact in defining popular music in 2020. Forget everything else for a moment the next time that you listen to “Blinding Lights” and just focus on it being The Weeknd at his very best. — J.G.
1. Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande, “Rain on Me”
It’s common practice for music fans to dub different songs “the anthem” of a specific year. But in 2020 — a year defined (and constantly redefined) by how preternaturally awful things can actually get — one song in particular served as its saving grace. “Rain on Me,” Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s front-facing pop testimonial to the power of crying and persevering through your own trauma, is 2020’s unofficial theme song.
For starters, Gaga and Grande’s voices prove to be a perfect match: The strong, theatrical mezzo Gaga brings to the table meshes faultlessly with Grande’s light, shimmering soprano. Their duet is only further bolstered by the house-shaking production, courtesy of BloodPop, BURNS and Tchami, whose intricate mix of French house basslines, ‘90s dance-pop beats and hallucinatory techno drops (with some good-old fashioned disco drama thrown in for fun) thrust “Rain on Me” to a stratospheric level of pop perfection. But the key to what makes “Rain on Me” such a glorifying success lies in its writing. The song manages to be specific in its approach to Gaga’s use of alcohol to numb her pain — the chorus’ hopeful refrain of “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive” also refers to Gaga being thankful she’s still here, even if she isn’t sober yet — while also leaving enough room for fans to insert their own respective traumas, or to simply enjoy the ride unburdened.
“Rain on Me” has already made history: It made Grande the first solo artist to debut four singles at No. 1; it made Gaga the artist with the longest range between No. 1 debuts; and it became the first all-female collaboration to replace another all-female collaboration (Megan Thee Stallion & Beyoncé’s “Savage” remix) at the Hot 100’s summit. But the song’s true historical legacy will become clearer years from now when we look back on 2020 — “Rain on Me” stands apart as the song that helped millions of people cope with the uncertainty, tragedy and anxiety of an endless downpour of a year, reminding us that, yes, while we’d all rather be dry, at least we’re still alive. — S.D.