Welcome to a whopper of a mixtape. If you've been living under the rock 2020 dropped on all of us back in March and spent the last nine months finding comfort in the sounds of your childhood (hell, even 2019), we have some good news for you: As crappy as this year has been for anyone with a shred of empathy, the jams were ample. When the news cycle had us at a loss for words, we found quiet songs to speak for us. When we wanted to smile without looking at our phones, buoyant distractions abounded. If racism, xenophobia and sociopathic behavior made us want to scream, Black musicians found astonishingly inventive ways of saying "um, did you just start paying attention?" And since we're still stuck in this storm for the foreseeable future, we present to you a silver linings playlist: 100 songs that gave us life when we needed it most. (Find our 50 Best Albums list here.)
SZA (feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
The first voice we hear on SZA's comeback single isn't hers, but that of Ty Dolla $ign. "Hit Different" opens with an emotive chorus, handled by hip-hop and R&B's go-to gun for hire and carried by a deceptive simplicity, made compelling by Ty's gravelly vocals. Produced by The Neptunes, "Hit Different" features SZA burrowing deeper into the earthiness of rhythm and blues, and exploring the complexities of the genre's central focus: love, at its most passionate. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride & Brian Blade
"Right Back Round Again"
During their first go-around in the mid-1990s, the members of this quartet were shining avatars of youthful promise, carrying a message of continuity for a jazz tradition more accustomed to counting its losses. They've since grown into their stature, graduating to a midcareer prominence and shaping the art form along the way. This high-stepping tune, a title cut of sorts for their reunion album RoundAgain, captures the silvery grace and flickering combustion that was special about this all-star alignment in the first place — but even better. —Nate Chinen (WBGO)
"The Arts and the Hours"
Víkingur Ólafsson is a pianist after my own heart — a seeker of unexpected connections, a nuanced storyteller, a cartographer of unexplored territories. With his mesmerizing arrangement of Rameau's "The Arts and the Hours," he blurs time and place, as music from the 1760s comes to save us from the noise and chaos of 2020 with measured calm and the promise of peace. The video, too, is a thing of intimate simplicity: four people sheltering in place share the things that bring them comfort — books, toy robots, pinball machines and the Steinway piano that is Ólafsson's companion in his own isolation. —Lara Downes (NPR's Amplify)
"I Know The End"
There's a love-hate relationship musicians have with touring. "I Know the End" begins with Phoebe Bridgers dreamily singing about the road's boredom while romanticizing the quiet life at home. This multipart tune is an ode to depression in need of a screaming catharsis. And the brilliance of this song is how it builds so gently from point A to point B. It's a sonic adventure with references to The Wizard of Oz, ending with a group singalong, blaring horns, guitars and whatever else this tornado can suck up and spew out. It feels so good. —Bob Boilen
Some songs just nail what it feels like to find what you're looking for after a lifetime of false starts and psychic bruises. "Bless the Broken Road" is one; several others are called "Home." This year's bless-the-broken-road classic is Chris Stapleton's plainspoken wonder "Starting Over," in which two weary souls head off wandering together in pursuit of a faraway existence that's bound to be better, simply by virtue of each other's presence. —Stephen Thompson
"On The Floor"
A joyous, warm dreamscape of a song that's also about unavailable human contact, feeling slightly unhinged and being stuck inside your own head: "On the Floor" captured just as much of what my year wasn't as what it was. Maybe that's why Perfume Genius' perfect, throbbing ode to infatuation saw me through some particularly dark moments this year. Or maybe it's just that the song, with its mix of aching vulnerability and commanding certainty, its romantic guitar lines and marvelously messy music video, is an unimpeachable delight. Either way, I'm grateful for it. —Marissa Lorusso
J Hus (feat. Koffee)
"Repeat" may be J Hus' song, but the British rapper yields the spotlight to Koffee, who creates the sonic equivalent of bottled sunshine atop a carefree dancehall production. Themed around the celebratory exhale of victory, it could just as easily double as Koffee's acceptance speech, having arrived on the eve of her historic Grammy win: "I cyaan believe it, no, this ah weh mi mudda conceive / She did tell me fi be di best ah wah mi can be, see mi now, mi ah di prodigy ah mi country," she coos in the second verse. J Hus takes up hook duties; the deep, warm tones of his voice offer a lovely contrast to Koffee's feathery singing. "Repeat" just feels good, an offering of escape in both sound and lyric that lives up to its name with ease. —Briana Younger
"Small Town Hypocrite"
From her debut album, the fast-emerging country artist Caylee Hammack offers a clear-eyed assessment of personal regrets in a song so well-written and communicated, you'd never guess she's only 26. Never fitting in, sacrificing a scholarship for love, being cheated on and realizing mistakes, it's all here in elegantly scored music — sighing steel guitars and murmuring keys — that sports hooks, urgency and a chorus that comfortably sticks in your ear. —Tom Huizenga
Two things stand out about "Lost One." The first is the feeling it articulates, a kind of longing mixture of grief and desire that often goes unspoken due to the shame of it all. The second is Jazmine Sullivan's voice, which conjures both fragility and resilient soul at once. Over three minutes, she purges with little to support her but a muted guitar loop and the occasional chorus of herself, as if to channel the lonely hollowness of a love lost. "Don't have too much fun without me," she pleads on the hook, "please don't forget about me, try not to love no one." It's an impossible ask delivered with impossible fierceness. A slow-burn that gradually rips open the heart with every note, "Lost One" (her first solo single in a half-decade) is some of Sullivan's finest and most wrenching work. —Briana Younger
"Hard to Forget"
This spring, there was a lot of talk about optimizing our time under stay-at-home orders (a common refrain on Twitter: "Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a pandemic!"). To hell with writing a book during quarantine; I could barely stomach a few sentences without pausing to doomscroll. In 2020, my attention span shrank to tweet-sized, and Sam Hunt's "Hard to Forget," clocking in at just over three minutes, became the only song I wanted to hear. When it was released in February, the slick sample and singalong chorus made it feel like an early song of the summer contender; in lockdown, listening on repeat, it felt like a fever-dream fantasy from the recent past. In a year when I couldn't focus on anything for very long, "Hard to Forget" was somehow precisely what the title advertised. —Lyndsey McKenna
"South Gotta Change"
Through a pandemic, a tumultuous election and an uprising in response to police brutality and racial injustice, musicians in 2020 kept on creating. For many, there seemed to be a renewed sense of purpose: calling for unity, for strength and for change. Adia Victoria is one of those artists who rose to the challenge, with her song "South Gotta Change." A Black songwriter raised in South Carolina, Victoria contrasts the love she feels for her home with an acknowledgement of its painful, ugly past. You can hear the tension between love and anger bubbling under the surface of her performance, giving the song a depth and nuance that sets it apart in a year that saw no shortage of protest anthems. —Raina Douris (World Cafe)
Last year, a hike in metro fare and rising economic inequality sparked weeks of violent clashes between military and protesters in the streets of Chile's capital city, Santiago. Chilean-French artist Ana Tijoux charges into the political hellstorm of 2020 with that same energy, her fast-paced delivery heating up with every pulsing beat. Sin pelo en la lengua, she reclaims derogatory slurs waged against the working class and denounces the effects of capitalism and colonialism in the same breath. Tijoux's raucous anthem calls us into a wildly choreographed uprising: The existing systems collapse, and we dance on their ashes. —Isabella Gomez Sarmiento
Just as his namesake Lion-O wields the Sword of Omens, shooting blasts of energy to defeat evil, so does bassist-singer Thundercat strut his "Dragonball Durag," riding virtuoso grooves to reaffirm the culture within pop culture. Feel the magic. Hear the roar. Enjoy the goofball charm of a funk prodigy. —Joni Deutsch (WFAE)
"Murder Most Foul"
"Murder Most Foul" begins as a rumination on the cold, calculated assassination of John F. Kennedy. "We're gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect," Bob Dylan sings over muted funeral-home piano-and-violin chords, putting himself in the minds of the plotters. The lugubrious mood sustains for 17 minutes, with Dylan seeking to understand the tragedy and its many cultural aftershocks. Just past the song's halfway point, he turns to a trusted source — his record collection — and begins the most unusual litany of disassociated listening recommendations ever recorded. "Play John Lee Hooker," Dylan commands his listener (or maybe his smart speaker?). "Play 'Mystery Train' for Mr. Mystery." He's grasping for sounds that might provide consolation, comfort, a sliver of enlightenment, and as he invokes each artist and every song, his plainspoken reverence becomes striking. It could be that he's just rattling stuff off the top of his head. But by the song's end, the listmaking itself feels like a heroic act. "If you want to remember," he advises helpfully at one point, "better write down the names." —Tom Moon
"anything" opens on sketches of memory that peer out at the world — hazy and intense, sometimes romantic and sometimes frightening. But gradually, it draws inward, becoming a song about the danger, violence and rupture that the world presents and the way small moments of intimacy can create a shield against them. In her high, soft voice, Lenker speaks her desire plainly: "I don't want to talk about anything / I wanna kiss, kiss your eyes again" and, later, "I wanna sleep in your car while you're driving / Lay on your lap when I'm crying." Knowing that Lenker's latest albums were written in the aftermath of a breakup, it's hard not to hear heartache beneath the song's romance; "Didn't you believe in me," the way she sings it, can sound like a plea for reconciliation from an ex-lover or an acknowledgement of gratitude. Like many of Lenker's best songs, "anything" finds healing and grace in these moments of connection, even while recognizing they won't last forever. —Marissa Lorusso
Bad Bunny (feat. Jowell & Randy and Ñengo Flow)
With three new albums under his belt, Bad Bunny made 2020 his most prolific year to date, with "Safaera" serving as his dizzying opus. A pastiche of DJ megamixes reminiscent of early-'00s Puerto Rican marquesina parties, the spiritual locus of all of YHLQMDLG, the song exists in a space of sweaty communion that honors reggaeton's most jubilant and nostalgic hallmarks as well as its insurgence. Its roster is stacked, and its raunch is right and just, with features by veterans Jowell & Randy and Ñengo Flow and a production master class from Tainy and DJ Orma. Across its numerous beat drops, tempo changes and layered, iconic samples, "Safaera" cites forebears from Missy Elliott to Alexis y Fido to DJ Nelson, creating a perreo textbook with a deep respect for its history and a celebration of reggaeton's roots in community. It's a magic that can't be conjured twice. —Stefanie Fernández
"Black Like Me"
"Little kid in a small town," Mickey Guyton murmurs at the start of this intimate anthem. Most songs in this vein get sappy after the first line, but instead of a typical dose of down-home, feel-good patriotism, Guyton describes what it feels like to be marked as different in a supposedly inclusive space: the playground snubs, the parents who work hard to shield their daughter from the effects of inequality. She grew up, moved from Texas to Nashville, found more smiles hiding the bitter truth. "If you think we live in the land of the free," she cries, her tone transforming heartbreak into conviction, "you should try to be Black like me." The best pure singer to emerge in Nashville since Carrie Underwood, Guyton delivers her message with calm indefatigability: This is reality, she's saying, acknowledged or not. Her song started many necessary conversations and will be remembered as a milestone in the genre's evolution. —Ann Powers
Megan Thee Stallion (feat. Beyoncé)
"Savage" was a runaway hit before a remix was even conceived. Within two weeks of TikToker Keara Wilson uploading her own choreography to the song, a viral dance challenge took off, leading to more than 3 million unique videos being posted to the platform. (That number now sits at a cool 29.5 million.) While the original song was doing exceptionally well on its own, "Savage Remix" reached new heights, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Surprise-released in April, the track, featuring Thee Beyoncé, is a complete reimagining of Megan's standout cut from her Suga EP. The production, handled by frequent Cardi B beatmaker J. White Did It, doesn't change much; instead, Beyoncé liberally sprinkles her ad-libs throughout the chorus and behind Megan's effusive, revamped bars, and sing-raps full verses, complete with harmonized background vocals. Both Bey and Meg approach this collaboration as a balancing act: they work to be relatable to listeners, with references to current trends, while presenting themselves as untouchable by their peers. To put it simply, the "Savage Remix" is the remix to end all remixes. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Christine and the Queens
"People, I've been sad"
2020 saw Christine and the Queens evolve from a French indie upstart into an auteur realizing her global, pansexual pop vision in multiple media and languages. "People, I've been sad" is an odd breakup song in that, instead of addressing her beloved, Chris breaks the fourth wall, asking the audience to bear witness to her sorrow. Sadness becomes theater rather than a diary entry. Instead of playing the part of introspective lover, she turns up the drama and goes larger-than-life. Over a sparse synth-pop backbeat that conjures neon lights, the singer's earnest and unvarnished delivery warps into something more otherworldly and surreal, ushering us into a world where pain can be transformed into an object of beauty. —Nastia Voynovskaya (KQED)
Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion)
Cardi B dropped exactly one song this year, but after "WAP," any more might have been overkill. Raunchy, fun and infinitely quotable, she joins Megan Thee Stallion for a shameless ode to, well, wet-ass p****, that flies in the face of those who might suggest these women's sexuality is a shortcoming. At every turn, the two dare listeners to look away with a perfect storm of irresistible qualities: the familiar, through a prominent sample of Frank Ski's Baltimore club classic "Whores in This House," the taboo in subject and attitude, the spectacle of unity between two of music's brightest talents. Meg is a more traditional stylist, whose voice oozes unassailable confidence, while Cardi is all theatrics and humor, effortlessly selling every last line, no matter how ridiculous (or anatomically incorrect) — a synergy that refracts the best qualities of one through the prism of the other. Together, they are magic.
To no one's surprise, a pair of women honoring their own ladyparts and the pleasures they dish out and expect returned in spades drew the ire of the insecure, of zealots and moral grandstanders. The backlash, however inseparable from the song's cultural narrative, only bolsters the argument for its politics of pleasure. At its core, "WAP" is Cardi and Meg's assertion that their expression, both artistic and sexual, belongs to them and them alone. Such a filthy bit of joy may be born of entertainment, but it persists as necessity — fake prudishness be damned. —Briana Younger
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