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.